BEING A DOWNTOWN CHANGE AGENT: Consensus, Conflict and Crisis

This is the first in a series of postings on being a downtown change agent. It is not a nuts and bolts piece, but rather philosophical in tone. It is, however, a view that has been honed by over 30 years of “working in the trenches.”

A Process of Perpetual Positive Change

One need not be Noah Webster to understand that the term downtown revitalization implicitly means bringing a commercial district from an existing damaged state to one that is significantly improved. In other words, downtown revitalization implicitly means a significant amount of positive change.

It also can be argued that the need of downtowns for positive change is perpetual. The reason is simple: the socially, economically, politically, geographically and technologically defined environments in which they exist are themselves constantly changing, generating new competitive threats and altering consumer desires, expectations and behaviors. Think of how such things as the flight to the suburbs, urban crime, the creation of regional shopping malls, the appearance of big box value retailers, catalog sales and e-retailing have impacted downtowns over the past sixty years. Downtowns languished because they failed to adapt to these changing competitive threats and conditions; they began to succeed when they finally learned how to adapt.

Effective Downtown Leaders Must Be Change Agents

If their environments are in perpetual flux, then downtown leaders must assume the role of “change agent” if they want to be effective. Moreover, the changes that they usually must try to spark are on the order of large systemic changes — e.g., changing the business mix, reducing crime, creating more high quality commercial space, etc.— rather than smaller, incremental changes, such as improving a store facade or putting up Christmas lights. Whether lots of small incremental changes can add up to a significant systemic impact may be debatable, but, personally, I doubt it.

Big Changes Mean Conflicts

Large significant changes require lots of financial, political and organizational resources. They are usually beyond the power of one individual to bring about. Big downtown changes will require the involvement of lots of people, many of whom will be powerful, often egotistical and sometimes downright petty. As organizational theorists, sociologist and political scientists have long recognized, big changes in any social system are likely to arouse strong fears and intense opposition. Just think of the frequent opposition to proposed downtown redevelopment projects and the “not in my backyard” response syndrome. Downtown change agents must expect that they will generate conflicts and be prepared to deal with them.

In my experience, many downtown leaders, unfortunately, are conflict avoiders. I am not suggesting that good leaders should look for fights, just that they should not run from them if an important issue or outcome is at stake.

Downtown Revitalization Means Politics

The local political process is just one available structure for conflict resolution, but it is the most important. Unfortunately, I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, over the past 30+ years, about significant proposals for downtown improvements being sidetracked because of fears that they might cause a “political problem.” Far too many downtown managers do not understand that their important programs and projects will generate conflicts that become political issues and that they will not only have to become involved in the local political process, but be very adroit at doing it.

Generating Broad Consensus Versus 50% +1
Many of the downtown leaders who are conflict adverse have strong needs to be liked and admired. When conflicts emerge they often seek solutions that can garner a broad consensus of support. They are often inclined to support planning efforts that have large public participation components.

While I certainly see how public input into the downtown revitalization policy/planning process can be valuable, I strongly dispute that the objective should be the creation of a consensus — the correct objective should be to garner enough support so an effective policy decision can be made and meaningful change can happen. In other words, you do not need to get 70% or 90% (or whatever the percentage that for you defines the existence of a consensus) of those involved to agree, just 50% +1. Everyone does not have to love you or your policy or your program — just your 50% + 1 supporters.

A broad consensus is much harder to create and to maintain than a smaller 50% +1 coalition. One of the other negative consequences, in my opinion, is that policy and planning processes that seek a broad consensus usually produce dumbed down policies, plans, strategies, etc., because so many competing interests and views have to be accommodated. Ironically, while the public input can really help inform the policy process about community needs and conditions and increase policy options, the consensus driven policy process then gives veto power to every small group and makes decision-making possible only on a few dumbed down points.

As may be obvious by now, my views about democracy are closer to those of Madison and Hamilton than Jefferson and Jackson.

Crisis Can Be Downtown Revitalization’s Friend
We use the term bureaucratic in a very derogatory way to describe a situation full of paralysis, inaction, system drift, numerous insufferable rules, and a stalemated decision-making process. Bureaucratic organizations and systems are the antithesis of change; instead they freeze and defend the status quo.

How many of us are in or have been in downtowns that are in a bureaucratic situation? How many of us have said to ourselves about our downtown, “Gee, we need a bomb to go off to make anything happen in this place?”

Downtowns in such a situation often can only be loosened from their inertia and power stalemate by encountering a crisis that shatters the existing decision-making structure and brings in new leadership having the desire for — and power to– bring about change.

For many downtowns, crisis can present enormous opportunities as well as enormous challenges.

Good downtown leaders shine during a crisis.

Some downtown leaders may even try to cause something of a crisis in order to bring about change. For example, I know one downtown district manager who was hired by a board that had no landlords or business operators from the district on it. (You read right.) The latter, because of their exclusion and the imposed district assessment resented and ignored the district organization. The district manager, after attempts at wooing failed, adopted a strategy of intentional antagonism and confrontation, hoping to thus stimulate the district’s business operators to become actively engaged and organized against him, when he hopefully would co-opt them into the downtown organization. This was exactly what happened.