Kent Bicentennial Plan: A Blueprint for Tomorrow
Before applying for the position of City Manager in Kent I did my homework on-line to see what I could learn about what Kent was thinking and where it wanted to go as a community. I invested that time because when it comes to an executive position like City Manager it’s all about the fit between the person and the city so I wanted to try to get a read on how well I would fit in Kent.
As a prospective City Manager you are looking for a community that is thinking about its future and is working off of a plan to get there. I don’t want to waste my time and energy on a place that could care less about its future. That’s why Kent had me at page 1 of the Bicentennial Plan (Download the Executive Summary). I knew then that Kent was a place I wanted to be a part of.
Now, with a year under my belt in Kent I’ve learned that Bicentennial Plan is not universally admired which is unfortunate because it is a product to be proud of, and to those outside the city it is looked upon as a terrific example of how a community can come together to co-create a vision. It’s impressive not just to us city manager types, but trust me, business executives look for that kind of stuff too. If they’re going to make a business investment in a community they want to know that community takes it’s future seriously. To that end, the Bicentennial Plan is more than a long term strategy for sustainable prosperity it is also one of the most powerful marketing tools available to us today.
But don’t just take my word for it, consider the fact that a team of nationally recognized experts at the International City Manager Association (ICMA) reviewed community plans from all over the country and then awarded Kent the top honor (see award summary) for cities with populations between 10,000 and 50,000. Out of hundreds of cities that fall in that category, Kent is #1. Regardless of whether you like everything in the Plan or not, that is an accomplishment worth celebrating — and frankly if we’re not highlighting this national recognition in everything we do and leveraging that to our marketing advantage, then shame on us.
To this day, Kent city staff are still being asked to speak at national conferences about the Bicentennial Plan. We get inquiries from cities all over the country asking for advice on how to replicate our work and Kent is featured as a “best practice” for community planning. Yet here in our own backyard the Bicentennial Plan is not only underappreciated it is a frequent target for criticism rather than the critical acclaim Kent is receiving everywhere else for it.
How did this happen?
Since I’m the new guy, the best I can offer is my third party speculation which means it is not necessarily any more valuable than the other 27,835 different answers you’d get if you talked to each city resident but since I’ve heard close to 8,221 of them perhaps I can offer a useful summary. It seems to me that there is a misunderstanding about what the Bicentennial Plan is and what it is not.
It is a vision not a project going out to bid for tomorrow.
It is a process that tried to translate aspirations to paper. It is not a contract written in blood and etched in stone.
It is a catalyst not a conclusion.
It was a way to engage our community creativity that tries to move us forward and use that forward momentum to bring positive change.
I emphasize these points because it seems that some people saw the high quality of the product and assumed it was a done deal. They jumped from vision to real live project in about 4 seconds and immediately assumed the bulldozers would be heading down the street the next day. Of course that couldn’t be further from the truth but once that seed was planted it was hard to pull that weed out by its roots.
So instead of working from a blueprint for building community as the Plan was originally conceived, some people have tried to reduce the Plan into a series of politically motivated platitudes that we let divide us rather than unify us. I get that it’s really hard to get thousands of people to agree on anything and I accept that the Plan can not make everyone happy. But to me this isn’t an exercise in happiness, this is the practice of leadership. This is about looking within and being honest enough with ourselves to acknowledge what’s working in our hometown and what’s not. It’s having the wisdom to know that sometimes honoring our legacy means making changes to the way we’ve always done things because times have changed around us while we’ve been busy reminiscing and now what we’ve always done isn’t doing it anymore. I was always told that “when you’re riding a dead horse, it’s time to dismount.”
As a newcomer, it’s been quite confusing to hear so many people vent their distress over Kent’s economic challenges and demand more leadership from their city government in one breath and then reject the very thing that was developed to give the city the direction it needed to respond to its economic challenges. I’m not saying the Bicentennial Plan is perfect but you can’t steer a ship that isn’t moving and the Plan gives us something to move to.
The practical side of me says “let’s get started” and accept the fact that we may not agree on our exact destination yet but it’s clearly not where we are today so let’s take some inspiration and guidance from the Plan and build the momentum we’re going to need to get wherever it is we finally decide to go. I have enough faith in our collective will and capabilities as a community to believe that together we’ll figure out where we’re going and how to get there once we get started.