Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Economic "Feel-Good" Summit

I went to last night's economic summit expecting to hear a discussion of the many issues that concern Waterbury's business people and residents. Since the summit was created in response to the chaos and communication problems that ensued over the health clinic move to Bank Street, I assumed this was going to be an opportunity for everyone to get together and communicate. Instead, we were subjected to more than an hour of long-winded speeches telling us things we already know about what WDC does, what Main Street does, and what the City does for economic development. We were also had to listen to Rowland give his rah-rah speech, broken up into three or four segments, but otherwise nearly identical to the same speeches he's been giving on Ed Flynn's radio program.

Last night's summit was a fantastic gathering of many of Waterbury's best: people who work and live in the city and do what they can to make this city great, and they had to sit idle for more than an hour of pointless speeches. I almost left out of boredom. When the audience was finally able to speak, I think many of us had given up on being able to have our voices heard. There were still many people who did get up to share their thoughts, but it seemed almost pointless to me. I did not feel that the panelists were there to listen; they were there to convince us that they know what's best for the city. The paper reported that Jim Smith thought the summit was a success--that just shows he is completely out of touch with what's going on in this city.

Over the course of that hour plus, we were presented with only one piece of new information. The mayor has decided to create a task force to get things done. He did his best to present this in a positive light, but it really doesn't hold up well.

The mayor gave no indication as to who will sit on the task force. For the city's sake, I hope the committee members are all city residents or business owners, and that they represent the full range of people in this city. If the task force looks like the panel at last night's meeting (a long row of aging white men in pricey suits), it will receive very little respect.

This new economic committee will be charged with "getting things done" and telling WDC, the Chamber, Main Street and other groups what to do. I can't help wondering if the mayor doesn't understand that Main Street is a volunteer, grassroots organization. I can't imagine the Downtown Merchants taking kindly to being told what to do either. WDC already has a board of directors telling it what to do--why do they need a second group to direct them?

I suppose it boils down to the subtle message that the city's current economic developers have failed (I'm not saying I agree with this). Instead of replacing presumably incompetent staff with people who can get the job done right, the mayor is going to appoint a committee to run the city. Who is the task force accountable to? What do they base their decisions on?

I'm sure it's safe to assume that Rowland will be on the task force. I hope he starts doing research before making actions. Every time I've heard him speak in the past two weeks, he has talked about his vision of UConn students living in downtown apartments. The first time I heard him talk about this, he first said that he made UConn a success by moving it downtown (and here I thought the school's teachers and administrators made it a success....), and that he had envisioned converting the upper floors of the YMCA to college apartments. In subsequent versions of this talk, he has taken out the details and merely said that he thinks having UConn students rent apartments downtown would be a great tool for revitalization. I can only assume he's thinking of a fantasy land in which college students are wealthy and well-behaved tenants. Based on my interactions with UConn-Waterbury students, I'd say the vast majority are living with their parents because they can't afford to live on their own. They are already working as much as they can to pay their tuition. If any of them did get apartments, they would rent the cheapest apartments and have as many roommates as they could fit. College students living on their own also have a tendency to trash their apartments.

I suppose Rowland's college dream would work if a building were converted to dormitories, funded through UConn, with full university supervision and regulation. But it would require UConn to find new funds for branch campus housing.

After listening to all the speeches last night, I'd say the officials in charge are still at the dream stage--if you built it, they will come mentality. If we create market rate housing, all of a sudden the downtown will be full of residents with disposable incomes. Where are all of these new residents going to come from? If they are coming from within the city, all we're doing is emptying out apartments elsewhere. The only way we'll be able to entice people from outside Waterbury to move downtown is with a serious marketing strategy. Before buying a house, I tried to find a good apartment downtown, but there was no way to search for one, other than walking the streets, looking for signs in windows. The apartment owners need to work together, possibly with a realtor, to market downtown living, as a destination, not just an amenity.

There were several other issues brought up, like parking. I have yet to experience any problems parking downtown, and I've been doing it for eleven years. I have never been unable to find a parking space, and, when I park in the ramparage, it adds maybe five minutes to my overall travel time. There was a man last night who said parking in the ramparage added 30 minutes to his visits downtown--I have no idea what he's talking about. It takes me ten minutes to walk anywhere downtown. Walking from Willow Street to City Hall Cafe might take 25 minutes at most. I wish I had thought to say that last night, but my mind wasn't quick enough.

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