Cabbage Heads Do the Politicians

bob_dylan.jpgWell…Griff and Tracy really wanted to do an election show. I was trying to avoid the challenge of adding something meaningful to the mix as well as the mud-slinging that seems to dominate so much of our national discussion of issues real or created. However, they got their way and we’re doing an election show this Monday afternoon.

At least we’re not doing another candidate debate. It seems that all the Democrats want to talk about is the War in Iraq and all the Republicans want to talk about is Gay Marriage. I don’t want to sound like I’m dismissing the thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis that have died or the importance of defending against a perceived threat to a cherished institution, but if I move straight to baseball in the morning paper, I can go days without thinking about Iraq and weeks without thinking about gays. However, there are some issues that have such a clear impact on my life that I can’t even make it to lunch without thinking about them. I’d rather talk about those issues.

So as Griff, Tracy and I have started preparing for this upcoming show, we’ve been asking each other “What are the key issues in the local, county and state contests?” To create a little grist for the mill, I’ll post my thoughts so far, hoping to stimulate a little reaction between now and Monday.

As most of you know, I spend most of my time in the thirty or so blocks that I call downtown. I think about the Library, the Liquor Store and the Post Office often. I hear about rising commercial taxes and see the crumbling curbs and sidewalks. I hear that we need a new City Hall and Safety Center and if we’re going to bond for those projects, let’s add a downtown parking structure while we’re at it. Then there are some people who want a YMCA, a new hockey rink or an artists’ building. Trying to conceive and implement all of these exciting projects is no small challenge.

Northfield spent the last year developing an Economic Development Plan. There are many solid, practical and useful steps outlined and our leaders are already moving forward on many of them. However, there is still some discussion on what should be our primary focus as we work to think and act strategically and even on how much focus is necessary or wise. Some of the possibilities are specialty trucking, smart manufacturing and medical technology. In addition, a number of people in the community are advocating for the inclusion of the creative sector. There is also on-going discussion on what our primary market should be: visiting tourists, senior citizens, or emerging professionals. Finally, there is a vigorous debate about where our capital investments should be placed: more conventional housing, our traditional downtown or a new business park. I’m not suggesting that it’s all an either/or question, but with the limits of our resources that we are constantly reminded of, some degree of focus will probably bring us more accomplishment.

Much of it can be packaged under “Quality of Life” and how it is shaped by our sense of place. As we begin to ponder this concept, we move to issues that are bigger than just Northfield. Education, the environment and transportation, although having powerful local impacts, are increasingly determined, at least in part, by forces beyond our city limits. Griff, Tracy and I have scratched our heads more than once as we’ve speculated on the county issues, but I think these three topics begin to define that sphere of influence.

With the levy on the ballot, and the school district encompassing more than just Northfield, and the State playing a constantly changing role in the funding, it’s obviously an issue that is bigger than a city council ward. The environment, protecting, enhancing, and enjoying it, without undermining economic development, is an issue that can only be addressed through the collaboration of leadership on many levels of government. It is perhaps a key opportunity for influence by our County Commissioners. In a, I think, related area of importance, transportation, once again significant accomplishment can only come through multi-level cooperation. Getting pedestrians safely across Highway 3 and commuters safely to Highway 35 require more than a City Council vote. So what are the key challenges and opportunities facing us in the areas of education, the environment and transportation over the next 3 to 5 years…and what are the visions of our, both local and regional, community and potential leaders for the next 10 to 20 years?

At the risk being simplistic, the State contests seem, at least to me, to come down to “how do we pay for?” education, the environment and transportation. And at this level, I’d also throw in health care as an important issue. Once again, we are reminded of the limits of our resources but I think most people would agree that quality education, transporation and health care are issues of great importance. If we could find agreement on what constitutes quality, cost-effective measurements of this quality, and a monitorable plan to achieve this quality, we could make real progress, including on a sustainable funding mechanism.

These are just my first thoughts. Of greatest interest for the upcoming show is making sure that we have identified and will be raising the priority issues for the local, county and state contests. So, please let us know before Monday afternoon. We truly appreciate it.

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