Is this serendipity, or what?
Your town is in such dire straits that it can't afford even the buckets of paint that the mayor of our fictional Brainerd is using as a high-ROI project aimed at value creation. There is zero cash to be squeezed from your city's budget to finance even the smallest of investments. And there is little hope of getting funding from your state and federal government, who've got their own fiscal issues to tend to. You, the mayor of New Hope, are overburdened, and your staff is running ragged, too, since your attempts to balance the budget have cut personnel to the bone. You can't invest their time in new projects; you can't raise money. About the only form of capital you can raise is social capital — your community's willingness to come together to do something.
And this is precisely the form of capital that you need most.
“What?” you say. “Social capital? Come on, what I need is cash.” Well, yes, you do. But in order to get that cash, you're going to need a lot of help from your friends. That's where social capital comes in.
You need social capital because you face some tough choices in the coming months or maybe years, as you turn your deficit into a surplus that will finance cash projects. You'll have to call a halt to all but the most critical infrastructure projects while you retool them to deliver more value. You'll have to perform triage on the services that the city provides — figuring out which you'll reduce, which you'll end, and which you'll raise the price of, for which stakeholder groups. You'll have to say “no” to a lot of people and their pet projects, as well as “please” to other constituents whose support you need. You are about to become very unpopular unless you can get your constituents wholeheartedly behind you. You need to enlist us as partners in change, because if we see ourselves as teammates, we're much less likely to see ourselves as people that your changes are “being done to.”
Most leaders carry the burdens of changemaking squarely on their own shoulders. That's what you were elected for, right? But the problems that you shoulder belong to all of us. That Main Street with the empty storefronts? It's ours. Those streets where people drive dangerously fast? They're ours. The overgrown, empty lot; the park where mischief gathers; the persistent city deficit? All ours. We own those problems, whether we recognize it or not, and we have little pockets of resources that can be used to address them. We're connected to other resources, too, in the form of family, friends, neighbors, clubs, and congregations. If you put us to work, there's a lot that we can do. And we'll be doing it together. That'll be way more fun for all of us, and especially for you.
* * *
I live in a hill town — the erstwhile mill town of North Adams, Massachusetts. Technically, it's a city, but it has the classic small town feel. As a local observer and the instigator of Imagining North Adams, I could fill a few posts about the difficulties that our local leaders have faced as they've tried to stabilize the local economy and put us on the road to prosperity. What I intend to do, instead, is take a new view of the challenges that our changemakers face and describe some techniques that anyone can use to create momentum for change. After all, we don't have to be mayor of our town to create a better future for it.
My first post outlined some of the territory we'll cover as I take you with me on this journey. This post dove a little deeper. Future posts will expand the landscape, introduce action items, and describe the connection between strategy, innovation, economic development, investment, and corn starch. (Seriously.) Please contribute your thoughts as we go. The Strong Towns community is brilliant, and I want to learn from you.