Well, I stammered, you have to be eligible to vote, meaning a qualified candidate must be 18 or older. You have to live in the city you wish to govern. And, uh, that’s about it.
Her follow-up spoke loud and clear. What? You don’t have to take a test or prove you actually know anything about governing a city?
Nope, I answered. Ain’t democracy great?
Winston Churchill put it more eloquently, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
As the Anniston City Council regularly demonstrates, things can get messy. And, frankly, “messy” is a nice word for what happens every other Tuesday on Gurnee Avenue.
Research promoted by the Kettering Foundation suggests that we might be going about this the wrong way. It’s a mistake for residents to believe they can outsource the governance and improvement of their community to one city council. Living in a healthy democracy requires more than voting once every four years. Asking a handful of men and women to carry the whole load is asking too much. We are all going to have to put in some work if we wish to live in a place that is smartly growing its economy and enriching the lives of all members of the community.
Kettering’s research found that without active citizen involvement in a community, “local institutions are often overwhelmed by unrealistic expectations of what they can do.”
It apparently really does take a village, which was illustrated in this summer’s three-part series by Anniston Star intern Vaughn Stewart III on the development of Helena-West Helena, Ark. As a report by the University of North Carolina School of Government and the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center noted of Helena-West Helena, “In fact, anybody could join the effort, and this perception of an inclusive and open-door process was widespread across Helena.”
Local governments aren’t irrelevant, Billy Ray Hall, president of the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center, told me, but they can’t do the work by themselves.
“Ultimately, citizens have to act together if they are going to make the difference they hope to,” reports the Kettering Foundation’s “Communities at Work” report. “Citizens acting together is the defining characteristic of communities that work.”
Fast-forward a couple of hours after the Jacksonville High student’s insightful councilman qualification question Tuesday. Mike Poe, a driving force behind Anniston’s successful Sunny King Criterium and Cheaha Challenge bicycle events, was speaking to the Anniston Rotary Club. His topic: a trails project on the 4,000 acres of Forever Wild property atop Coldwater Mountain that divides Anniston and Oxford.
With a couple million dollars and six years of work, the site could be home to a 60-mile network of trails for biking, walking, running or hiking, Poe said.
So what, those immune to the charms of two-wheeled fun may ask?
Well, Poe pointed to economic-impact studies that demonstrate outdoor recreation is big business, not merely for specialty shops but for restaurants, hotels, shops and other retailers.
The Institute for Transportation Research and Education at North Carolina State University examined the impact of a bicycle trail network in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. According to the survey, a one-time expense of $6 million in public funds yielded a $60 million annual bump to the local economy while supporting work for 1,400 residents.
The Coldwater project thus might be considered a marriage of the local business cycle and cyclists, many of whom have an ample share of disposable income and will happily travel from across the region to ride trails that will be unlike any other “east of the Mississippi,” according to Tom Sauret, Southeast regional director of the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA).
IMBA is a key partner of the development of the Coldwater Mountain project, but it isn’t the sole organization working on the trails. An active local cycling community has been joined by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, the state’s Forever Wild program, local businesses and more than 120 volunteers who have signed on to do what it takes to have the first section of the trail network open by April 22, just in time for Earth Day and the Sunny King Criterium and Cheaha Challenge.
Kettering’s research cites various community success stories, locales that have enlisted a civic army to do good work. Many of the cities are approximately the same size as Anniston and faced dire conditions of persistent poverty, substandard schools, a shortage of good-paying jobs and declining businesses. These role model cities worked together, focused on goals and combined the forces of government, business and nonprofits to grow. The work isn’t easy, but as Poe’s remarks last week showed, the Coldwater project has the potential of making the Model City a 21st-century role-model city.
Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.