Today we are featuring a guest post and podcast episode from our friends at VERDUNITY, a planning and engineering firm in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that applies Strong Towns principles in its work. This was originally published on their Go Cultivate! podcast, which aims to help community leaders grow financially resilient, resource-conscious, and people-friendly cities.
If you’ve followed this podcast for a while, you may have heard us talk about five key groups of community leaders, and the ways their roles differ and interact. We’ve had discussions with city administrators, elected officials, economic development leaders, city staff, and that particularly diverse group of folks we call the implementers. (If you’re a follower of the Strong Towns movement, you have heard these folks referred to as “strong citizens,” people who care.) These are the people taking a leadership role in their community in a way that is outside of city government. They are the glue that holds the community together, and an immensely valuable resource for city leaders to tap into.
Our guest in this episode is someone who is starting to straddle these lines a bit—but he’s an implementer, a "strong citizen," first and foremost.
Ben Orcutt is a bike-advocate-turned small business owner and candidate for city council of Anderson, Indiana. He joins (one-time Anderson resident) Jordan Clark on this podcast to discuss the importance of believing in your neighborhood, how cities could help clear hurdles for citizens who want to contribute, and what we stand to gain by focusing on authenticity and transparency in local government.
Ben has spent years demonstrating—through his neighborhood businesses as well as his advocacy and volunteer work—what is possible when you invest your time making repeated small bets on your community. After being approached by many of his neighbors and peers to take that approach to city government, Ben is now running for a seat on Anderson’s City Council. Ben is the first to tell you he’s still learning, that he doesn’t possess all the answers. But he is serious about asking questions, about observing local needs, and about trying new things out incrementally to see if they make a difference. And if you ask us, that’s exactly the kind of person we need in positions of city leadership.
Here’s Ben on the need to mend a too-often broken relationship between citizens and government:
"I have so many friends, and so many people in this community, who have projects that they're working on, and things that have an enormous potential to make this place better and stronger, but they keep running into the same issue: when they try to go downtown and get the zoning appeal that they need, or make some adjustment to some plan, they just run into this giant brick wall of city government.
Why is that the hold-up? …. There are so many other hurdles to getting a business started or a program going. Let's let the city government interaction be the easiest and best part of that process.”
And here’s Ben on why small cities like Anderson should rethink economic development (along lines Strong Towns’s Chuck Marohn has articulated before):
“It’s not that we don’t have people who want to go out for a nice dinner in Anderson. It’s that we don’t have places for them to spend that money. On a weeknight, to go out to dinner, they’re driving 30 or 40 minutes to Carmel or Indianapolis. The idea that people wouldn’t want to travel here to spend that money: I think that’s a totally false notion…. We need to make this a fabulous place to live. Once you make this a place that is desirable, the jobs will follow the people.”
Economic development officials have enormous budgets. If you look at the effective dollar amount, between tax abatement and straight-up cash incentives, for these quote-unquote jobs that are being “brought” here… if you look at the dollars spent per job, if the local government were to take those same dollars and invest them locally, I don’t know what would happen. I’ve never seen that done. But something tells me that that we would see more jobs, and jobs that people want, and that offer some of that identity that has disappeared. I’m definitely willing to see what happens.
Ben's campaign page can be found here. [Editor’s note: Strong Towns is a 501c3 nonprofit that does not endorse political candidates for office.]
The Go Cultivate! podcast is a project of Verdunity.
(Music in this episode is from Custodian of Records and Tours.)
(Cover photo via Verdunity)