Column: Challenges ahead for local leaders

November 29, 2013 

There’s an interesting phenomenon going on in the region these days. Like bears coming out of hibernation, area towns are starting to wake up from the recession and move around. In Garner, town leaders are quite focused on doing things that can better position that town for growth now and into the future.

In Knightdale, the town has invested millions in effort to improve livability, and the development community has taken notice.

In Wendell, where growth has never really been easy to come by, Newland Communities has plucked the Wendell Falls development out of bankruptcy and, despite protestations to the contrary, they seem to be on a fast track to get that development off the ground. Time is, after all, money.

And, in Zebulon, some of the residential developments that hit a brick wall a few years ago have seen renewed activity.

All that presents plenty of opportunities as well as challenges for town commissions and town councils.

In Wendell, Zebulon and Knightdale, new town leaders will take their seats this month. They will be faced with difficult decisions about how to spend finite governmental resources. They will have to judge each decision regarding economic development opportunities against the return on investment.

That can be tricky, of course. If you build a park or a greenway, will it make a difference in the eyes of developers or business owners looking for a place to call home? Is investment in downtown a wise way to spend money? And, if so, how much is too much? How loud should local leaders advocate on behalf of schools, an agency they really have no control over? Is that an investment in the future that’s worth expending political capital?

And what about roads and transportation issues that seem to consume the larger cities in the Triangle? Is there a good reason now to push the Department of Transportation and CAMPO – the Capital Area Metropolitican Planning Organization – to spend money on transportation needs now before we see the gridlock that paralyzes larger cities?

These are all difficult questions and, to be sure, they are just a few of the challenging issues that newly elected boards and councils will have to wrestle with over the next few years.

But it’s also an exciting time to govern. After years of work to stop the bleeding, there seems to be some opportunities to resume preparing for growth and new opportunities. Here’s one piece of advice for all those who will have to make these difficult decisions: it takes money to make money.

For the most part, investments in infrastructure will pay off in the long run. If the towns in our part of Wake County invest in the tangible (think roads and Internet access) and the intangible (think an educated populace) those investments will pay off. For the investor looking for a quick return, they will likely be disappointed. But we don’t ask commissioners and council members to make decisions only for the short-term. For those of us who have vested interests in our communities, we’re willing to wait for the long-term payoff. That’s what good government does. If it seems like the pace is glacial, well consider how long your town (and, by default, you) will benefit from wise decisions made now with the long-term view in mind.

It’s not normally sexy. It’s almost never easy. But it’s critical. And we hope our elected leaders, both new and old, will take that mission to heart over the next four years.

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