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The work of the community

August 8, 2010

Just as we’ve considered the physical layout and characteristics of Pottstown on some maps and on the ground, we can also take a bird’s eye view of how all the different players in the community take on the “work of the community” and how they relate to one another. There are the elected and appointed officials, individually and as members of a public body; non-profit housing, arts, health & wellness, library, shade tree and preservation groups; churches; civic groups like Scouts, fraternal organizations, PTAs; citizen activists; municipal employees; and the private sector that keeps the economic engine running and, in many cases, financially supports the work of the non-profit, civic and religious groups.

If you were hovering above all these groups in Pottstown, who would you see repeatedly crashing into one another? Or who is being deliberately cut out of the game? On the flip side, who sets screens for other players to help them fulfill their role better? Who quietly shows up day after day, year after year, getting their work done?

I am in no way saying that every group and every person in Pottstown must figure out how to work in perfect harmony. Every community needs its watchdogs, especially when there are obvious, serious problems that need to be addressed.

WHAT PROGRESS LOOKS LIKE
It’s not news that many people are frustrated with the status quo. For the past 9-12 months, there has been a growing impatience and vocal expression of frustration in the blogosphere, in the online comments at The Mercury and in person at public meetings. Citizens have formed groups to respond to specific issues. What’s apparently pretty remarkable is that Council, the Borough Manager and the School Board are listening and have begun taking action on some long-standing problems. They are also setting up processes for information-gathering, deliberation and consensus-building. This is what progress looks like.

These will take time, and not every statement or public comment is going to come out perfectly, whether it’s from someone on the inside or the outside of the process. People might not say what they mean in quite the right way. Maybe they have to back-track or re-phrase. If certain lines of communication haven’t ever been used, or not used very often, elected and appointed officials, citizens and bloggers, too, are not going to come out with perfectly-formed thoughts and ideas right off the bat. We’re just human and need to remind ourselves to cut each other some slack – all for the sake of getting the work done.

BACK TO THE WORK
Individuals feel like they’re making a meaningful contribution to the work of a community when they have a defined role – when they are recognized and asked to participate in meaningful tasks with a clear purpose. In Pottstown there’s a lot to be done. Anyone who wants to be part of positive change should be given a chance to do their thing. New people need to be pulled in. The court is big here and there’s no five-player limit.

Right about now you might be thinking: “Yeah, yeah. That all sounds just so nice. Now who’s going to FIX things?” Recently – I can’t find it now – someone posted a comment on one of the local blogs to the effect that the town has been down this road before. They hire someone who’s expected to do miracles, it doesn’t happen, they leave and the town loses again. They may have predicted that would happen with the new director of PAID/The Pottstown Partnership… and where does that stand now, anyway?

NO MIRACLES HERE
First, every public entity would do itself a huge favor by figuring out how to more frequently update the public on its activities. We live in a wired world; the expectation is that information should be available, if not immediately, then within a few minutes! Every entity, although not the Partnership yet, has its own website and should be keeping the public informed, even in an informal way. I understand that minutes from meetings are not official until they’ve been approved. But especially in a time of transition – Pottstown seems to be transitioning to a new era of responsiveness & action – when frustration and skepticism still run high, regular, simple updates would go a long way toward gaining citizen confidence.

Second, there is no miracle worker on the horizon for PAID or for Pottstown. You don’t even want to think like that. It’s a set-up for failure, for that individual and for the community. At this point, I’d like to go back to a link in my previous article. It was Wikipedia’s definition of Comprehensive Planning, which showed this step-by-step process:

• Identifying issues
• Stating goals
• Collecting data
• Preparing the plan
• Creating implementation plans
• Evaluating alternatives
• Adopting a plan
• Implementing and monitoring the plan

Whoever heads up the Pottstown Partnership is going to have to do all these things in an open and transparent way that brings out the best in those who are already in the community. Let’s face it, Pottstown can be – to quote Rodney Dangerfield – “a rough crowd.” And I say that with all the affection and pride in the world! 🙂 Whoever comes in would do well to create an economic development plan of action WITH the stakeholders as well as FOR the stakeholders.

Third, you can’t just order up a whole new team! The individuals and groups that already exist in town are certainly capable of listening, learning, gathering information, assessing, making decisions, implementing and monitoring them. They may have fallen short in the past, to varying degrees, but evidence is mounting that they are moving on now, trying to do better and succeeding. These are not miracles. These are people following the outlines of a thoughtful, planning process and getting a job done together.

Next up: Forces and resources outside the Borough’s borders

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5 Comments
  1. Jeff permalink
    August 10, 2010 12:09 pm

    I agree, Sue. Progress takes time. But I think Pottstown’s problem and lack of patience is watching other communities doing what is necessary NOW to spur positive growth and development while Pottstown just sits and watches. This town has the structure and layout to be a bigger destination than Phoenixville or Reading, but until the old regime moves on and out of town and finally sees the light, we’re going to keep getting what we’re getting.

    • August 10, 2010 12:57 pm

      Jeff,

      I totally agree… up to your point about “the old regime” moving on/out, simply because, well, I think it’s too simplistic. I’m trying to get beyond the shorthand and the pointing of fingers at some unnamed group of people who are somehow responsible for this whole complicated, interrelated, long-term load of problems which has been caused by internal AND external forces. (Please do not take this as an invitation to start naming names!) But also, like I wrote, the community is the community; you have the team that you have, although different players will come and go all the time. As priorities, goals & plans start to take a new direction and IMPLEMENTATION actually occurs, the shift will become more obvious. Those who are committed and serious about doing what’s right for the town, as part of a collective effort, will come to the fore, as long as the community holds itself to a standard of civility, cooperation, transparency and action in the best interests of the community.

  2. August 10, 2010 12:28 pm

    Sue, you’ve adequately presented the outlines of a huge balancing act.

    You caution, rightly so, that Pottstown can’t expect miracles overnight or possibly for a few months of overnights. Yet you also acknowledge that people are frustrated, even angry with the lack of progress under status quo.

    I suggest that the first task of the Pottstown Partnership is to map out, by anticipated completion dates, a series of short- and long-term goals. Borough residents are desperately in need of a quick “win” – on whatever scale, in whatever venue – to see positive things are happening and progress has begun. With it, I’ll bet, they can buy into the plans and hold on for a duration. Without it, I fear, they’ll lose faith and hope.

    Sadly, that puts real pressure on the Partnership to produce results, but I think it’s inescapable.

    • August 10, 2010 1:08 pm

      “Huge balancing act” – That’s a classic planning mantra. And the effort never ends; there’s always competing interests.

      You’re right, Joe. The Borough needs a quick win – several would be nice. As I continue with this series, I hope to get to the light at the end of the tunnel, and suggest a few goals that I think are essential and absolutely achievable. For months, I’ve wanted to shout, “Just hold on! Help is on the way!” because I do see the potential for the Pottstown Partnership to be the mechanism that finally gets it “right,” or more “right” than it’s been for a long time. Part of the reason I started writing these pieces was to stop myself from feeling helpless and maybe also help the community get through this waiting period. But, absolutely, the Partnership needs to hit the ground running, set goals, produce a plan with timelines that lead to tangible results, and start checking things off the list in a transparent way.

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