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My plea for more listening

Here’s the guest column that I supplied to the Oak Ridge Observer this week. It’s in the print edition, of course (along with a few items that the dailies didn’t carry) and on the Observer website, but you can read it here, too:

As we move into another new year, I propose a resolution for everyone involved in Oak Ridge’s public life in 2012 – that all of us resolve to communicate better. In particular, we need to resolve to do more listening, rather than assuming that we know what other people are thinking.

I got to musing about the need for better listening after a recent interaction with one of the most active observers of public life in our city. He commented to me about where I stand with respect to “the two major groups in Oak Ridge.” I had to ask: “Only two major groups? I thought we had a lot more than two.” He explained the “two major groups” as “those who are basically for growth (often dangerously) and those who are basically skeptical of much of city government and prefer to act very cautiously.”

I see a lot more than two “major groups” in Oak Ridge (one might say that our city has as many opinions as it has people). If informed observers perceive that we have just two major factions regarding such a broad topic as growth and development, I think it means that people are not hearing each other, but instead are making erroneous assumptions about the opinions and motives of people who disagree with them.

From what I hear from citizens, I don’t believe there is anybody in Oak Ridge who is all-out opposed to development. People do oppose development that adversely affects resources they care about. For a significant number of people, the resource they care about is tax money — they don’t want a penny of tax money to benefit any private developer. For some other people, it’s the quality of their neighborhood or a tract of green space (which in both cases might translate to an adverse effect on the value of their property). There are some people in town who don’t like development that will create competition, particularly if they perceive that the new competitor will get an advantage at public expense. For still others, the resource of concern is free-flowing traffic (they don’t want traffic congestion to reduce their mobility).

Much of this opposition never forms – or melts away quickly — when a development project is one that does not push people’s buttons the wrong way. There have been two great examples of this in Oak Ridge in the last couple of years. I heard nary a peep from the residential neighborhood when Eddie Hair announced his major expansion near Georgia Avenue, and Woodland neighbors have generally very favorable to Terry Wheeler and Walter Wise in their plans for the Woodland Town Center development facing South Illinois Avenue. However, people in those same neighborhoods have been strongly against some other development proposals in those same areas because they expected adverse impacts on the quality of their lives. These neighborhoods are not part of an anti-development faction; rather, they are communities of people respond negatively or positively to proposed projects depending on the quality of the specific projects and the quality of the developers’ interactions with the neighbors.

Here’s the guest column that I wrote for the Oak Ridge Observer this past week. It’s in Thursday’s print edition

One powerful source of opposition to much development in Oak Ridge – particularly development with public subsidies — is our residents’ long memories. Many Oak Ridgers are suspicious of new development proposals because of past promises that were not kept and previous development/subsidy schemes that turned out bad (or that residents considered to be bad ideas from the start). Different residents have different lists of the past “mistakes”, but “mall wars” and “golf course” are on the top of many lists. Regardless of what’s on a person’s specific list, the litany of past mistakes and betrayals has convinced them not to trust city government, various individuals and businesses, the Chamber of Commerce, CROET, or other allied entities.

As for the pro-development “group,” I know that business leaders and city officials evaluate each proposal critically, but I have the impression that some people from this group feel that they must express wholehearted support for each new development proposal that gets publicly announced, without revealing any private misgivings they might have. I assume that this uncritical cheerleading is aimed at silencing opposition, but it doesn’t work because it doesn’t respond to the reasons for opposition. In fact, it seems to me that this cheerleading is almost guaranteed to arouse the concerns of folks who are deeply suspicious as a result of Oak Ridge’s past mistakes. Both good proposals and bad will continue to look bad to a large fraction of Oak Ridgers if the proponents don’t hear and respond to their specific concerns and objections.

Public life in Oak Ridge would be less likely to turn into public combat if people (this includes me) listened to each other more, instead of making assumptions about other people’s opinions and motives – particularly when those other people appear to disagree with us. I resolve to listen better in 2012; I hope that other community leaders will do the same.

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