When taking road trips, one often drives through states and counties abundant with sheer beauty, beautiful lakes or rivers and places calling your name. Often on these drives, one enters the city limits of a community located among this beauty. Unfortunately, at times, visitors may feel they have entered a war zone. Homes and lots look more like the local landfill. They see yards that haven't been mowed in months (or years), rusted vehicles, houses with garbage piled to the roof and downtown buildings that haven't seen a paintbrush or upkeep in a generation or two. My heart sinks for these communities as they have no future without change.
In talking with leaders in some of these communities, while not visionary leaders, they are good people. When asked about the blight they oversee as leaders, they quickly say, "Oh, we value our freedom around here; we don't tell people how to live their lives."
Not to sound harsh, but these are code words for apathy, leadership malpractice and, above all, they are entrenched in the poverty mindset that has overtaken the community -- another sign this community won't prosper again until the mindset changes.
These leaders have a warped sense of what real freedom is. They are in bondage to misplaced freedom and have no idea of the responsibilities that come with true freedom. I am as big a fan of freedom as one will find but I also understand my freedom can't encroach upon others' freedoms. I can't drive my car into other cars. I can't light my neighbor's house on fire. I can't endanger others in the name of my freedom.
Shamefully, communities will allow trash to accumulate, attracting rats, animals and diseases that spill over onto nearby properties. What about the rights of those nearby property owners? These communities will allow fire hazards that can impact entire neighborhoods. What about the rights of the others in the neighborhood? They allow yards to be unkempt, attracting snakes, rodents and so forth that will spread to nearby properties. Don't the nearby owners have any freedom or rights to live in a clean area? They, in fact, are allowing blight, decay and uncaring to have greater freedoms than those who want to live in a community that is a desirable place to work, live and play. The minority is being allowed to hold the community hostage and drain whatever future that community might have.
Many of these communities wonder why their children go off to college, never to return. The answer is simple: What have you provided for them to return to? Many of these communities have the illusion of attracting manufacturing and jobs. Stop thinking about that nonsense now; you are wasting your time. You reap what you sow. You allow blight and decay and you get what accompanies blight and decay, not what accompanies a great quality of life. Once you have lived in a community that has pride and residents and leaders that care about everyone's freedom, you don't want to revisit blight again, even if others are comfortable with it.
Thankfully, there is a solution to this entire mess. It is called true leadership.
When you pass through a community that is clean and well-kept, you are passing through a community that has pride. This pride is developed through a common belief that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. They have ordinances assuring blight doesn't rule the day. They strictly enforce those ordinances, knowing that it is critical to the long-term survival of the entire community. They understand that if they want children to take pride in their hometown and if they want to recruit businesses and jobs that matter, they must have pride in their appearance and attitudes.
It may seem I am being harsh towards communities that don't have the resources of bigger communities. Yes, I have been harsh because this is one problem that doesn't cost much more than great leadership to correct -- leaders who care about future generations. You will always have a few residents who will yell and scream they have the right to live as they wish; you must push ahead and think of the good of the community as a whole.
If you want to build a vibrant community of which everyone can be proud, one to which people want to move, one to which your children will return, one to which businesses will flock and with which next generation will be happy, you must start instilling that pride today.
Don't let the few dictate your future -- plan now for a better tomorrow!
Editor's note: John Newby is a nationally-recognized publisher, community, chamber, business and media strategy consultant and speaker. His "Building Main Street, not Wall Street" column runs in more than 60 communities around the country. As founder of Truly-Local, he assists community leaders, businesses and local media in building synergies and creating more vibrant communities. He can be reached at [email protected].