Life in the Village can be interesting. For the past several weeks I have had conversations with fellow residents who are urging their elected government to get on with strategic planning to prepare this community for the future.
The proponents of strategic planning know several standard ways of getting it done. It’s a no-brainer, they say. I have had just as many conversations with fellow residents and Council members who don’t see the point of strategic planning. The Village is what it is, they say, basic services work, recreational and educational opportunities are available to residents who seek them, the community is stable in every possible way. Nothing more is required than diligent maintenance of existing facilities and programs.
Philosophically, I tend to end up in the middle, thus pleasing neither the advocates nor the critics of strategic planning. Few individuals I know are capable of thinking strategically; fewer still, including corporate CEOs and university presidents I have worked with, are able to share their gifts with entire organizations.
Yet, there are times in the life of any organization when willingness to embrace strategic thinking and planning can make a real difference. It happens when organizations are so comfortable with their missions or market niches that they ignore new issues or trends within and without.
In both the corporate and the non-profit sectors examples abound . Think about successful, iconic corporations like Kodak and Xerox. Think about historic educational institutions like Sweet Briar College in Virginia and Holy Names University in Oakland, California. None of these organizations lacked inherent capacity to adapt to changing environments. None lacked the human capital to choose and implement appropriate adaptations. However, over years and decades, their governing boards and senior managers made the choice not to adapt.
Since the election of May 2015 the governing Council of our Village has done the same thing. A majority of Council members show no interest in updating the demographic and economic profile of the community, in order to understand who has moved into the Village since the formative years (1980s), what keeps them here, what motivates them to leave. Activities and programs continue on automatic pilot, with little attention to participation, relevance, and use of financial resources.
The Village Council is a government, not the board of a private club. Most residents, however, take no interest in its mission, proceedings, and decisions, except when “greedy developers” threaten to alter the internal landscape.
Kodak and Xerox were proud of their traditions as innovators and global market leaders. But they became inattentive to emerging technologies and to the changing needs and preferences of their customers. The Village is in a similar situation today.
Lacking an up-to-date profile of the community, its governing Council and staff are content to serve the needs of a small percentage of residents. More importantly, this traditionally narrow internal focus blinds them to changing circumstances on the periphery of the Village.
To the displeasure of suburban communities in the Greater Friendship Heights area, this cluster of high-rise condo and rental buildings developed when the opening of Metro’s Red Line transformed the area into a major commercial hub. The fortunes of the Village continue to rise and fall according to the quality of public transportation and the profitability of office buildings and retail stores.
The continued deterioration of public transit and the dramatic changes in the retail industry will have a much greater impact on the competitiveness of the Village in Montgomery County and beyond than anything likely to occur within its boundaries.
Yes, the Village needs strategic thinkers, and they need data about the internal profile of the community and about the probable re-development that is likely to occur at nearby commercial sites. The Sector Plan for Friendship Heights is nearly 2o years old. The Village needs to be ready to engage in the formulation of the next Plan.