What's the Worst That Could Happen?

In the town where I live, some local wants to build a boat. I was new to town and had questions and didn't want to start drama in a public meeting, so I was hesitant to ask a bunch of questions because that can come across like a personal attack or an attack on the idea even if that's the furthest thing from what you had in mind.

But after hearing a speech about the idea that I felt made it clear this was likely a poorly thought out idea, I ended up sending those questions and my critique of the idea to someone I knew.

I didn't want to get involved in small town politics, I just wanted to be helpful to people who I felt seemed to not really like the idea and didn't seem to have the right background to argue against it effectively. This email ended up being used in ways I didn't intend and I ended up regretting sending it.

Someone "answered" my questions and did so while copying the author of the idea on the email. On the upside, they did pull out just the questions. It certainly could have been handled far worse than it was.

But I didn't want to be involved at all in this. I was just trying to be helpful and I felt like I was being thrown under a bus and then it seemed to me like it didn't actually do any good anyway because the person who is behind the idea completely dismissed all objections and continued on their merry way with promoting the idea, showing no concern at all for any criticisms.

So be mindful that simply trying to provide useful information may not go like you expected. Small town politics can be a real pain to deal with no matter how you handle the situation and there can be reasons for that which aren't immediately apparent.

Below is an edited version of that email, plus additional info. You can consider it to be something of a case study in how small communities may jump on an idea and not adequately critique it and not wonder where things could go wrong. It's followed by some general thoughts on the topic of ways things go wrong and why you need to ask yourself "What's the worst that could happen?" when trying to make plans for a small community.

I have never been enthusiastic about the proposed boat for our downtown park, but I didn't really have strong feelings one way or the other until I saw the latest presentation at the last public meeting. Now, I have some concerns that I do not see being addressed.

(This email includes multiple links to supporting articles and sources of information. It is not necessary for you to read those if you don't want to.)

1. The figure used of 20 million vehicles is extremely inflated.

There is an excellent book called "How to lie with statistics". The traffic numbers used for this project are a classic case of lying with statistics. Technically, these are accurate numbers, but the way they are used is extremely misleading.

The statement "There are 10 million vehicles crossing the bridge in one direction and another 10 million vehicles going the other direction, for a total of 20 million" double counts a lot of vehicles. Many of those vehicles are doing a loop. It is not 20 million different vehicles.

Additionally, this boat is intended as a tourist attraction. So even the 10 million vehicles in one direction is an overstatement because it implies that this is 10 million tourists. But it isn't. Many of those vehicles are local trips or long haul truckers or work commutes, not tourists.

I don't know what percentage of that traffic is tourists, but it is probably substantially less than half. If you need 20 million tourists for the boat to make sense, then it doesn't make sense because that figure is wildly inflated.

2. Where does the profit come from?

There is an internet meme that goes something like this:
  • Step 1: Do X.
  • Step 2: ??????
  • Step 3: Profit!
That's the plan I have heard so far:
  • Step 1: Build a boat in Zelasko Park.
  • Step 2: ??????
  • Step 3: Profit!
I have heard nothing at all that explains how a boat leads to economic revitalization. If you don't have an explanation or plan for that, I don't think it will do anything for the local economy. There is no talk of charging admission or having some kind of activity there, like a souvenir shop.

(Supporting articles linked at the bottom of the next section relate to this section as well.)

3. Publicity?

To my mind, if this project has any value position at all, it is for the potential to attract new traffic, not for the potential to somehow magically capture part of the existing traffic. Those 10 million vehicles already go through our downtown area, without a boat. If the boat doesn't bring additional traffic, it isn't doing anything.

It won't work to say "Build it and they will come." I have not heard one word about plans to get publicity nationwide or internationally.

That doesn't just magically happen without effort, but all I have heard is that 10 million vehicles will pass it every day and that's it. If there is no concerted effort to actively publicize it beyond the borders of our small town, then it isn't really doing anything and I have seen no evidence that such plans exist.




4. What about parking?

The presentation at our last meeting indicated parking will not change, yet includes 4 porta potties. The thinking was not explained, but presumably the thinking is that there will be so many tourists that they will need 4 toilets, yet no additional parking is planned. How do you need 4 toilets but no new parking when the entire idea is always referencing the 10 million vehicles crossing the river in each direction? How does that work?

This sounds like a disaster. If tourists actually stop in appreciable numbers, this easily overwhelms existing parking and turns into a traffic and parking nightmare for both locals and tourists.

I am imagining a scenario where tourists are complaining that "Yes, there's a boat, but you can't park within 4 blocks of it, so it takes 20 minutes to hike to it" and local businesses are complaining that they are going out of business because their customers can't get parking spaces and tourists stopping to see the boat are not, for example, getting haircuts in the downtown area.

Supposedly, the city engineers like the idea of the boat and their only complaint is that the previous design interfered with planned flood control efforts. Why aren't the city engineers asking about traffic studies and parking requirements? Isn't that typically one of their first concerns?

Tourism and transit planning:

5. Why a boat?

I have not heard one word that explains the decision-making process as to why a boat is being proposed at all. Is there some study somewhere that suggests a model boat has any economic value for a small town?

The best small town revitalization case study I know of is Suisun City, California. I lived in Fairfield for about 5 years. It borders Suisun City. So I got to see talks by some of the people involved in that project because I lived there many years ago when it was still somewhat fresh.

The project is now decades old and is still essentially considered a classic success story. When small towns borrow money for revitalization they can end up bankrupt if the revitalization doesn't raise property values enough to increase tax revenues.

This was a concern in Suisun City. Happily, they were successful and are able to service the debt incurred. (I will note that I have also learned that the way Suisun City pulled that off is no longer possible because laws changed and I think how they financed it is not legal anymore, so there are limits to what you can learn from this case study.)




Good info on municipal bankruptcy is proving hard to find, but I will include these pieces:



There is no tourist attraction comparable to this boat in their story. I don't know of any case studies where a thing like this played an important role in revitalization. Tourism development does not hinge on a single landmark. It's more complicated than that.






6. Vandalism, crime and security?

The park in question is a hot spot of homeless activity. What are the security measures planned for this boat to prevent it from becoming a free hotel for the indigent and then become rapidly trashed out as a result?

Rome is going to start charging a fee to see The Pantheon in part to cover security costs:


How will the city cover things like security costs?

7. Comparison to the Space Needle in Seattle.

The statement was made that the Space Needle made Seattle and this boat can do the same for this town. But the Space Needle was built as part of the 1962 World's Fair, it was the tallest building west of the Mississippi for many years and people go to it to take the elevator up to the observation deck, not just to look at it.

This boat provides no activity that I am aware of and has no traits comparable to being part of a World's Fair, etc. The comparison to the Space Needle has no real basis that I can tell, never mind that it is highly questionable to act like that one building "made Seattle."



In short, I have never heard a single compelling argument that genuinely supports the idea that this boat is somehow an asset to the city. Worse, it looks to me like an attractive nuisance that will cause parking and traffic problems and likely end up vandalized and lived in by homeless individuals. It may also attract more serious crime by providing a hidden place for things like illicit drug deals.

I don't know who is supposed to maintain it after it is built, but I would hate to see this essentially be a case of gifting the city government a giant headache. I am concerned about the fact that none of these issues has ever been addressed at all as far as I know.

Hopefully, these points stand on their own, but here is a little personal background concerning the education and experience shaping my questions:

Before life got in the way, I was in school preparing for a career as an Urban Planner. I am a few classes short of a BS in Environmental Resource Management and I have a Certificate in GIS (the equivalent of Master's level work). I have been to an Urban Planning conference and have some other related experience, such as working pro bono as a moderator for an Urban Planning forum for a time.

Some time after writing the above email, I tripped across a video and filed it in my private notes under the title A John Oliver Episode with a completely useless boat. My private file had a link to the following video and the couple of sentences below it:

This boat got all kinds of tax breaks, yadda. It is doing absolutely nothing for the nearby downtown area.

The title for this post is from a comedy by the same name. If you haven't seen it, here's a clip for a small taste of how badly things go in the movie and I recommend watching it in full sometime while wondering what could go wrong with your plans for your small community.

NSFW -- Very Sweary, in fact

There is a general tendency for small communities, small businesses and individuals to imagine "landing the big one" and being set for life. Individuals dream of winning the lottery and small businesses often dream about landing a big client with similar "made in the shade" results in the fantasyland of their mind.

This is not how real life generally works.

Here is a grim description of how badly things go for most lottery winners: Xpost on R/personalfinance (and here's the direct link).

Small businesses that get a big client tend to fare similarly poorly. Large clients are frequently a huge nightmare and in some cases they bankrupt the small business that thought they had just hit the jackpot.

That should all be food for thought for trying to make realistic plans for the future of your small community. Always keep in mind the truisms "Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it" and "Hope for the best, plan for the worst."

So once you have profiled your community and started dreaming up a better future, stop and check your assumptions. Make sure you try to find out the potential worst case scenario for what you are envisioning and try to actively find ways to defend against it or mitigate the worst case scenario before you give your plans the green light.

If you can't mitigate it and it's both really bad and highly likely, it will be better to start over and make new plans. It may be frustrating to do that, but your second effort is likely to be vastly better than your first one was. It may reduce the sting to think of that as a "practice run" on your planning efforts.

Easy answers, like attracting tourists or advertising how 'affordable' the area is, can backfire. Here are a couple more articles about things that can go wrong with tourism: Eclogiselle exists precisely because I think change is coming and small communities need to actively plan for it in order to try to defend themselves. Otherwise outsiders with more money, more education and so forth may come in and displace existing residents and your current community members may end up worse off, not better off, even while buildings begin to look better.

That's the essence of gentrification. The place gets better, but the existing community -- the existing residents -- are shafted in the process and frequently end up priced out and having to leave an area they once loved.

To my mind, community development needs to be about the people as well, not just the place. Otherwise, you aren't really building a community because a sense of community is about more than pretty buildings.

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