This from Jerry Kurtyka:
EL PASO – AFFORDABLE STEPS TO RENEWAL
# 5 Thought Leadership or Where Do Ideas Come From Here?
Does anyone else see what I see? That there are so few good ideas here to guide discussion about our future direction, culture, risks and opportunities as a region? Instead, the political dialog is mostly about development of downtown and how to get others to pay for it. I mean, the two wealthiest guys here brought off the biggest tax heist in city history with congratulations and thank-you from the people we elected to watch over our public wealth. The flak from the local paper and city hall only amplifies the message: WE HAVE TO SPEND MORE DOWNTOWN AND WE HAVE TO GIVE MORE OF YOUR MONEY TO INVESTORS AND SPECULATORS TO DO IT.
Talk about supply side economics! People like Cortney Niland and Emma Acosta and Dr. Noe make Ronald Reagan look like an amateur when it comes to spending your money to benefit their friends.
Then there is the existential debate about who we are. You know, “It’s All Good,” except we send delegations to places like Nashville to find out how they got their mojo. “Music City” has so much more cachet than “The Big Burrito” when it comes to defining who we are. I will write a blog on branding El Paso soon.
What these strategies have in common is that they are about ideas and whose ideas get funded with your money. So where do the ideas come from? Easy, they come from the people who want your money and who work through their surrogates in public office, not different from how the state and national governments work except you would think we could have more control over it locally, but we don’t.
In my view, ideas are the spiritual life blood of an organization and an organization that does not have a flow of new ideas coming in is like a stagnant pond of water that festers and breeds disease. In the case of a city, the disease is corruption, crime, disinvestment, depopulation and decline. Think of Detroit.
So, what are the venues for new ideas in The Big Burrito? And when an idea surfaces, how does it get traction and how does it get funded? As best I can tell, an elite group of business people – the Hunts, Foster, Sanders, Borderplex et al – are responsible for the current crop of “official ideas” that relate to development: the ball park; QoL bond issue; and new building downtown. These ideas are socialized with policy makers in city hall (not an idea source), lubricated with generous campaign contributions and the rest is history. That is the idea cycle in The Big Burrito today and I’m not saying it is all wrong, but I am saying it is not inclusive. It’s too bad their ideas didn’t extend to our schools and jobs, unless you count hot dog jobs as jobs. The Chamber, I think, is in charge of the “Who Are We?” debate and will probably travel to Disneyland next in search of inspiration.
Do you recall the business cases for the stadium and QoL bond issue. What business cases? Your city staff (especially the former CM and CFO) doesn’t do business cases; they validate the “official ideas” for funding. Why do you think the stadium lost $500,000 with full attendance and the west side pool is millions short? Can you imagine how short the museums and arena and trolley will be? Alternative ideas that question the official consensus – the “horde” as Martin Parades calls it– are shouted down and ridiculed by your city council and by the one English (sort of) language newspaper daily. Critical thinking is career-limiting in city hall.
The current “official ideas”, the ones driving the public agenda, have in common debt-fueled development projects that reward investors and construction companies, a kind of “trickle-up economy” where the bottom of the economic pyramid funds the aspirations of those at the top, with help from elected officials; the kind of economy Dick Cheney used to brag about delivering to the GOP. To some extent, it is a needed antidote to years of neglect and urban decline here. Yes, I actually wrote that. Too bad the private sector isn’t paying for it since they will be its ultimate beneficiaries.
If you don’t like the situation, you can question the idea cycle here and seek to change it. I have a few ideas of my own about how to do that but I don’t believe they will change the current zeitgeist, at least not for a generation because El Paso still has a lot of catch-up to do and, like it or not, that is what the “official ideas” are driving just now. We need to think a generation out because, in the Big Burrito, we are still living at the lower levels of Maslow’s Pyramid and need better streets, educated citizens and guaranteed water before we invite Deepak Chopra to open a clinic here.
As for the alternatives, do you recall when Joyce Wilson brought urbanist Richard Florida to El Paso to lecture us on how to be hip? He said we needed more gays and yuppies downtown because they are associated with a vibrant urban core? It took a while for the laughter to stop, but that is the risk that new ideas entail. Prof. Florida obviously did not understand the official El Paso culture dictates, since the Jon Rogers days, that new development must benefit the cabal of downtown investors and builders, not average folks. But Florida did understand that urban vibrancy is a people thing, not so much a built environment thing. It lives around people who are cosmopolitan and educated, hardly El Paso today though that can change in a generation. This critical viewpoint is the essence of an alternative universe of “unofficial ideas.” Wilson, for her part, didn’t make the mistake again.
So, how are alternative ideas and voices heard? Do you think that the unrest following the death of a young black man in Ferguson, MO might have something to do with this? Another young man, Danny Saenz, was shot by a police officer while handcuffed at the jail here but only a few of his friends questioned it. There were no mass protests, no shutdowns, just a wake at a local bar. What does that say about El Paso and how we value our lives and ideas? My question is, can we come up with a more inclusive way to generate, socialize and fund ideas that will form our future as a region? If it causes a shit storm with the Usual Suspects, that would be healthy here.
Mr. Hunt recently endowed a think tank at UTEP – the Hunt Institute for Global Competitiveness – a factory for “official ideas” tasked with “serving as a multi-disciplinary research platform for the creation and application of theoretical and practical mechanisms in order to foster the global competitive capacity of the cross-border region.” Great, except I don’t think they will ever ask any of you readers or local Indian tribes or human service organizations like La Fe and Volar and the Rescue Mission, and environmental groups like Sierra Club and the Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition or any of the host of others who live and work here and serve in the community’s shadow economy, and whose ideas are not important in the context of the official economy. The opposite is more likely to happen and unofficial ideas will be stifled, as with the NPT coverage of the stadium protest that cost its editor her job, or the EP Times’ Joe Meunch ridiculing its critics.
At this current stage in El Paso’s social development, your ideas count for nothing! If you don’t believe me, write to your city rep and question what is happening now. And wait for an answer.
NEXT – # 6 The Commons as a Source of Renewal