Political will, leadership crucial to building great communities

From left: former Maryland Governor and President of the Governors' Institute, Parris Glendening; former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, former FEMA Director James Lee Witt, and former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge at the Governors' Institute launch event.

Great neighborhoods, strong local economies and balanced budgets don’t happen by chance. It takes political leadership and resilience to achieve those goals – political leadership that is sometimes hard to come by.

“Everyone wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die to get there,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge during a conversation between past and current state leaders at the National Press Club today. The Governors’ Institute on Community Design hosted the event, which kicked off newly announced support for the Institute from the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.

That reluctance to stick one’s neck out can have a negative impact on states and local communities, explained former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who co-chairs the Institute with former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening. Instead of planning for long-term, sustainable economic growth that meets a wide range of goals, it’s easy for elected officials to lapse into short-term, often politically motivated decisions.

“People have come up with this mindset that it’s an either or [between jobs and smart, long-term thinking], and we have to break that,” said Whitman, noting the pressure on state and local leaders to show immediate results.

She emphasized the need for state and local leaders to think tactically and show more resolve, a point Ridge hammered home when he likened current federal and state budget deficit reduction battles to a “kabuki dance” between political parties.

Many of the decisions needed today are bound to be unpopular, because the country needs both cuts to costly services as well as new revenue creation sources to fund important infrastructure upgrades and investments, Ridge said. Drawing attention to the need for increased leadership at all levels of government is therefore vital, as are more transparent and proactive efforts to inform the public about the realities of municipal costs.

“We almost need a public education campaign,” Ridge said about the cost of updating America’s infrastructure systems and investing in the things that will lead to long-term growth. “You flip on a light, you don’t think about [the cost]. You turn the water on, you don’t think about it.”

What that means for the country’s towns and cities is significant, as leaders shy away from making investments or bold policy changes to attract voters. Politicians on both sides of the aisle might recognize the need for smarter decision-making in light of changing market trends toward walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods and evolving population demographics, but it can be difficult to roll out reforms.

Current governors Martin O’Malley of Maryland and Beverly Perdue of North Carolina addressed that point, noting that leaders must persevere through criticism while simultaneously showing how new strategies will benefit communities over the long-haul.

“To continue to have a state that is growing as quickly as our state is growing, and to continue to have the kind of economic development we want,” Perdue said, “you need revenue … not just in North Carolina, but in any state.”

“All the great things you say during the campaign … all the, ‘I can fix it all with a magic wand,’” she said, “If you want to focus on the future, you have to make tough decisions and you can’t just stick your finger in the wind and decide which way the public is going.”

The Institute, established in 2005 and currently administered by Smart Growth America, aims to shore up political leadership and lend assistance to governors looking to promote economic development and make a better use of taxpayer dollars. Glendening said the three federal agencies’ funding support will enhance the Institute’s ability to provide technical assistance and counsel across the country.

“It’s very clear that the innovation is at the local and state level, and it’s important for us to recognize this at the federal level,” said U.S. Transportation Deputy Secretary John Porcari.

For leaders who want to address state concerns in a more comprehensive, strategic and financially sustainable way, the Institute is at governors’ disposal, Glendening said.

“We see our job in the Obama Administration as doing some of the downfield blocking,” Porcari added.