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The Need for a Community Communications Center?

September 2, 2011 - Ernest Hohmeyer
As a community and perhaps as a Tri-Lakes region, I don't think we talk enough – together.

What? Come again?

Perhaps I should ask the question this way: do we talk enough as a community?

Little Joe’s When I was the young, bright-eyed and full of hair and ideas as the founding director of a local economic development effort, I started with no programs and very little money. So inevitably I asked the question to Sue Dyer, then the Executive Director of the Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce who was instrumental in creating the office, exactly how do I get started and know what I should focus on?

Her reply was simple. Paraphrasing 25 years later it went something like this: “Part of your job description is to meet every Wednesday morning at 7AM at Little Joe's.”

“Little Joe’s?” I bewilderingly responded. “ That’s a bar. What am I doing in a bar at 7:00 in the morning?”

“That’s where you will find out what’s going on, what the issues are and how we may help.” “Oh yea,” she curtly concluded in that trademark smile that could get you to agree to almost anything but also let you know she was not asking but telling you, “and don’t say anything, keep your mouth shut and just listen.”

Half awake, I stumbled into Little Joe's. For you newbies out there, Little Joe's was a long-standing bar that was owned by a long-standing man. I say that because Little Joe was well, little. But his stature and what he stood for and his belief in the community probably came from his illustrious boxing days. In this particular case, size definitely did not matter. It was all heart and commitment.

So in I walked and was amazed to see engaged in full discussion with cups of coffee and donuts everywhere, the mayor, local town board members, the heads of some of our communities largest businesses, a few quiet power-brokers whose name you very seldom here in public and some interested citizens. It was an eclectic group that would ebb and flow from week to week but some of the major players of the community were always there. They were not part of any one organization or group and there was no agenda.

Sue was right, I took many of their ideas or issues of the day to help me create those fledgling economic development programs. I also learned 2 other important lessons: to be successful you need partners and stakeholders. Second, there was a time to talk but mainly in these informal community gatherings it was a time to listen.

No Capital “C” on Community It was the first germination of the concept: bottom-up community development. I realized that sometimes I did not have to direct or come up with an idea, I just had to listen and use my training to help put the pieces together. To be successful, the ideas had to come from the community and needed to have consensus.

Consensus should not be confused with unanimity. Saranac Lake for example, has dealt with severe economic dislocation several times in its history. And while it had the important support of state and federal officials, it was really the community that pulled it off.

It was not always easy and it was not always pretty.

Think of the transition of the TB days, the effort to locate AMA and the founding of NCCC. Or, how about the effort by a group of local citizens to literally build “the dress factory” to create local jobs?

Not everyone agreed but they worked on these issues together.

In this world of unprecedented capability to communicate, why does it seem we are not talking to each other? Why does it seem, that while most of us would agree real reform is needed in Washington, we are frustrated by the results?

In a story recently on Life on entitled “Poll: Most Say US on the Wrong Track,” the lead is “Economic fears are weighing heavily on Americans…” According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll quoted in the article, “73 percent of Americans believe the United States is "off on the wrong track," and further found that 47 percent believe "the worst is yet to come."

Real Discussions? With all the wonderful initiatives happening in the community why does there seem to be a creeping divisiveness? Or, at least an unwillingness to tackle some of the fundamental issues that may suffocate any progress that has been accomplished? Why has there not been more meetings between neighboring municipalities on cooperation, consolidation or dissolution matters? Why is there a relatively inactive downtown business association or a perceived unwillingness to work with the chamber? Why do we not have more regional discussions on regional assets such as the Adirondack Regional Airport? Can we really create a bio-tech hub without all the spokes within the region?

Have we all become so lost in “chatting” we have forgotten how to communicate?

Is it because we live too much in angst? Years ago, when someone complained about our business, they would call you on the phone or write you a personalized letter. Now, a disappointed customer can shred you apart to hundreds, if not thousands, before the door is closed as they walk out of your shop. In these tough times, we may be inclined to play it safe hanging on to the business or political careers we have. More and more as I talk to my local business brethren, I hear “I am not going to say anything about that, it will hurt my business.”

And they have great, practical ideas.

Is it due to the fact the issues are no longer small and singular to each of our individual communities? We now have to deal with complex, fundamental and inter-connected challenges that will take the cooperation of many different parts to resolve them.

Community Communications Center? Perhaps we do not need individual leaders from each of our communities as much as we need regional facilitators.

Ironically in this time of massive communication, perhaps we need to re-create these “community centers of communication” that then meet with regional “networks” to help tackle some of these important issues that will define the real future of our communities.

In the time when we need to work together, where we need to act like a community without walls, there does not seem to be any place to meet or go to. There does not seem to be a community center.

Perhaps its time to re-create an informal communication center both real time and on-line. No one has to lead it, we just need to participate and to listen. It would be best to come from the non-partisan business community and our citizens.

I’ll bring the donuts if someone brings the coffee.


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