Go Tell the Spartans

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Lansing, Michigan – The Spartans of old were the lightly armed, highly determined warriors that defended the pass at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. against a vastly superior force of Persians, bent on the complete destruction of Greece. The modern Spartans are the lightly armed and highly determined municipal officials who battle to prevent Michigan from being overrun by economic collapse, commercial oblivion and social chaos.

You may chuckle at the comparison, but it is this vision that sprang to mind during a day-long forum last week with 30 state and local elected officials and professional staff in Michigan. I came face to face with the resilience of leaders who are bent on rebuilding the economic prosperity of their communities and that of their neighbors.

These are not starry-eyed Pollyannas. Rather, they are clear-headed realists who have gotten very good a calculating and managing risk and confronting and solving problems.

There is innovation here in good measure. Born of necessity and practicality, the use of shared service agreements between cities are commonplace, albeit still challenging. At a time when “place making” and “livability principles” are often ideas for philosophical discussions elsewhere, Michigan cities are defining place for their own needs and creating a framework that can support economic recovery statewide.

Complaints are minimal but when they come forth they are focused and reasoned. For example, the leaders want CDBG rules that are flexible enough to allow targeted funding to neighborhoods which can be transitioned to PERMANENT stability rather than spent in those places that will need an annual infusion of grant funds and which are unlikely to ever stabilize.

Ideas abound. Michigan is a state rich in water resources. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), half the world’s population will be living under severe water stress by 2030, making water perhaps the planet’s most valuable resource. Michigan, it seems, will be ready for that eventuality.

Cautious optimism seems to be the general sentiment. Leaders are experimenting and city workers are taking ownership of streamlined procedures. There are tasks still to be done but there is a confidence that is reinforced by steady progress.

I can’t help thinking that governing the country would be a lot more effective if Members of Congress could approach their work with the same objective and practical views as do the local officials with whom I spoke in Michigan.