Live in the past. Reject new ideas. Watch community die

A marketing strategist warns local leaders of what comes from rejecting change and acting ‘dumb’ so less is expected of them

Revised, Dec. 13, 2013 – All small-town coffee shops should have a designated ‘be happy’ section, says Chris Fields.

Coffee shop critics with all their “nattering and chittering” are part of what’s killing rural communities, says Fields, a senior marketing strategist with the Alberta-based Twist Marketing Firm.

“Coffee shops are horrible places for that. They’re the bane of rural existence. It’s where all the, ‘this can’t work’ and, ‘that can’t work’ talk goes on,” the marketing strategist told about 900 municipal leaders at their annual convention in Brandon last week.

Headquartered in Calgary, Fields’ firm helps towns and cities across Canada and the U.S. become better places to live and more attractive to investors and tourists.

His presentation, equal parts entertaining humour, sarcasm and rebuke spoke of how local councils likewise wreck communities, when they shoot down new ideas, resist change, and “act dumb so people ask less of you.”

Fields criticized government in general, and local government in particular, for their tendency to hunker down to manage and maintain, rather than set vision and new direction for their communities.

Local-level government is best positioned to do the bold, original, creative stuff people want for the places they live, because it’s government closest to people, said Fields. Trends that bode really well are the buy-local movement and an emerging ‘creative class’ across all of North America — people who are seeking real meaning and engagement with the places they live.

“My argument is we’re the closest thing for people to be able to achieve meaning in these places,” Fields said.

But what local councils do is ignore youth, put up roadblocks to business, live in the past, and reject change — contributing to the community-killing culture of naysayers that dominates the local coffee shop.

“Government has become a very efficient operational services provider, and not much more,” he said. Too much time is spent producing incomprehensible reports and plans that are basically “jumble puzzles” no one would even attempt to read, he said.

“It’s where we’re really lacking. You’re investing all of this energy in strategic planning but, by the way, there are 47 plans. A councillor in Stony Plain, west of Edmonton six months ago said to me, ‘We have so many goddamned plans I don’t know what we’re doing.’”

A council fails to engage the public in what they’re up to at their peril, says Fields, who in his presentation cites 13 Ways to Kill Your Community by Doug Griffiths and Kelly Clemmer, a guide to helping municipal leaders identify ways to make the places they govern stronger.

Fields’ firm has surveyed people about how they perceive municipal-level government in general and logged words such as “boring.” When asked how confident they were in their current representatives a third replied they “don’t know.”

It leads to the dismally low voter turnout in municipal elections, he said, citing a 25 per cent voter turnout in Alberta during its recent elections.

“And how many people do you have at your council meetings these days?” he asked AMM convention delegates. “One? Two? Are they even alive back there?”

He challenged community leaders to take a lesson from history, when political life was a high calling, and town leaders a century ago were building places of beauty and aspiring to leave a legacy to serve generations to come.

It is about government setting direction, and providing services at a price people are willing to pay, he said, noting it’s the setting direction part that is failing, he said.

“You need to be asking yourselves what plan are you producing that creates that emotional engagement with your community,” he said. Sixty-nine per cent of Canadians don’t live in the town they were born, and seven per cent live in a place they first visited as a tourist.

“Think about this as a matter of communities,” he said. “When I work with communities on their brand, I ask these questions: Why do you matter, to a visitor, to regular folks, to an investor?”

Their citizens are craving a place to live that matters. It’s government’s job to imagine a community that’s different and better than what they currently have.

“We all secretly want to love where we live,” he said. “A barometer of whether we’re happy or not tends to relate to where we live.”

CORRECTION, Dec. 13, 2013: The Dec. 9 print version of this article incorrectly cites Chris Fields as the author of 13 Ways to Kill Your Community. We regret the error.

 

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