Opinion: Crime group sets example for development

Vance County, it seems, has developed two basic ways to address its problems. Let’s call them the Embassy Endeavor and the Cleanup Concept.

Under the Embassy Endeavor template, exemplified by our friends at the Embassy Block Cultural Center Foundation (a.k.a. the Embassy Square Foundation), a small group, perhaps a single person, comes up with a great idea for a bold project, looks for problems for which the project can be proclaimed the salvation, forms a nonprofit group with an impressive name to enhance fund raising and eliminate the need for open meetings, gathers in secrecy to complete its plans, presents those plans as inviolable and essential, eliminates any active role even for most of its ardent supporters, asks the public to show patience for many years and to trust that eventually the bold vision will pay off, then uses the local government to run interference and inject funding whenever needed.

The alternative, perfected by the Clean Up Henderson Committee, starts with a problem or a plethora of problems, sparking the creation of an ad hoc group with no name, which quickly expands to encompass anyone available with ideas on how to attack the problem, meets in the open, thrives on sharing information and expertise, brainstorms short- and long-term solutions, refuses to show patience, pushes for quick results to gain the public’s confidence and build momentum, continually welcomes new people with new ideas and new perspectives, asks for little taxpayer money, serves as a grass-roots front to help bring outside money to local projects, eventually moves toward a nonprofit group to enhance that fund-raising function, and pulls the area forward as it tackles increasingly large issues that have defied traditional government solutions.

We trust that you are familiar enough with the work of the Embassy Square Foundation since its founding in 2000 and the record of the Clean Up Henderson Committee since its start in 2003 to avoid wasting precious bits and bandwidth on their stories here. But the crucial differences are easy to summarize.

Think about how much of your money has been spent on the Embassy cultural project (at least $1.8 million), what you have for that money five years into the project (remember the promised spring 2004 groundbreaking for the library?), how rarely the foundation holds meetings of the big community committee it first boasted (we don’t know when the group last met, but we know local media weren’t invited or even informed), and how little you see reported from the foundation (aside from press releases about a $500 donation here and a $1,000 donation there).

Now think about how little the city government has spent on cleanup projects (well under $200,000, and that’s if you want to count the full cost of the new street sweeper and write off the costs of demolishing abandoned houses, costs that could be recaptured by foreclosing on those properties), how much the cleanup has accomplished (junk cars, overgrown lots and street trash are far less common, and those abandoned houses are slowly but surely coming down), how easy it is for you to participate at the highest level (not only are the biweekly meetings open to all comers, but lately the nonmembers have nearly outnumbered the members), and how much you see about Clean Up Henderson in the media (to the extent we’re sure many of you are sick of hearing about it).

The Embassy way is top-down, mysterious, potentially expensive and prone to a loss of public support.

The cleanup way is grass-roots, enlightening, inexpensive and organized to build public confidence.

The method should not be confused with the intentions, which are good in both cases, but perhaps one path is much more likely to follow those good intentions into a pit of eternal suffering (or at least to make all involved feel as if they’re doing time in purgatory).

All of this is a long-winded, high-concept, purgatious way to bring us to two new high-minded community organizations.

On the secretive path of the Embassy foundation we find the proposed Henderson-Vance Economic Partnership, which, like the Embassy project, is spearheaded by Economic Development Commission Chairman Sam Watkins.

We’re told that this partnership will revolutionize local economic development by bringing together all agencies and organizations with a role in developing business or the work force. It’s a logical, overdue step to get the county government, the city government, the EDC, tourism, the school system, the community college, downtown development and the Chamber of Commerce around one table to ensure their economic efforts are in sync.

We’re nervous, however, about what role this private, nonprofit group actually will play. Watkins has said it will be strictly advisory, but the group’s written proposal says it will make decisions. The organization also is budgeting for an executive director at $110,000, plus a work-study coordinator, a grant writer and a few other jobs. That’s a lot of firepower for a group that can only offer advice.

The group is taking the 501(c)(3) nonprofit route from the start, which is good for fund raising but bad for public information. Maria Parham Medical Center, Rose Oil and other businesses are making big five-year funding commitments for the economic development partnership, but it still would tap public money.

If the point is to get the various organizations talking and working together and to produce advice, why come out of the box with an expensive, long-term, highly structured, potentially bureaucratic superagency? Why not take a quicker, simpler step — get all of the same people together, get them talking and planning, then decide whether a 501(c)(3) is the way to go?

In other words, why not do exactly what a new anti-crime combination, known simply as the Working Group, is doing?

The Working Group, an offshoot of the Vance County Coalition Against Violence, was born Feb. 21 in a lengthy meeting at the police station, and it held its second meeting Wednesday morning at the Aycock Recreation Complex. It formed to launch a comprehensive attack on crime, without any preconceived notions about how to do so.

The group already is expanding and now includes community leaders, business leaders, the city government, the school system, the police, the sheriff, prosecutors, defense lawyers, juvenile justice agencies, Area Mental Health, Gateway, Eckerd Youth Alternatives, the local Partnership for Children, the Regional Council of Governments and the Chamber of Commerce. And more agencies, such as the Department of Social Services and the county government, are being invited.

The participants are sharing information and ideas and, after two meetings, are taking such concrete steps as forming a three-person committee to push for more time for juvenile court, bringing in a grant writer to advise them on where to look for outside funding, and creating a database of all the services local agencies provide to look for gaps and overlaps. It’s operating on the assumption that the more everyone knows, the better.

We don’t know whether this Working Group will succeed in reducing crime, or even whether it will slow down long enough to pick a real name. But the energy and potential in that room Wednesday were impressive, and we’re encouraged that no one is waiting for a formal structure or extra government funding to get rolling.

Some of the same people involved in the economic partnership are part of the Working Group. We know they’ll produce results much sooner in their crime fight than their jobs fight, and that momentum should build as the group implements long-term programs. We hope that success trickles down to the economy and maybe, just maybe, sheds light on a better way to overhaul local economic development.