Dean, L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs
Virginia Commonwealth University
Phone: (804) 827-0776
What is the most important thing for a mayor or town manager to know?
One is there’s no substitute for good information. It’s worth taking the time to figure out and make sure you have an information system that’s easy to use. How are you getting information, and how do you know that that’s good information? The mayor has to figure out, what are the key things I need to know? And how do I make sure I’m getting constantly updated on that really good information? It doesn’t mean having a hundred facts. Maybe it means having ten. Secondly, if we’re talking about revitalization of existing communities, downtown, whatever, it’s important to realize that you have to have a concept of what you’re doing. It has to be focused. It won’t do to try to improve everything at once. It’s very, very difficult for political leaders to embrace that lesson because you’re getting requests and demands from all sides.
What’s the best advice you can give to a mayor or town manager working to improve their towns?
You have to figure out, and you have to have the political skill, to work with your constituents and your stakeholders to figure out what you need to do first, second, third, where you start, and how you focus. And focusing is a matter of bringing to bear your good information with the understanding of what your potential is. What’s your potential niche? What can you do better that others aren’t doing? How does what you do complement what somebody else in the region does? You’re choosing that first step with a lot of understanding of where it’s going to take you. Obviously you want to start, if you can, with low-hanging fruit. Don’t start with the most difficult thing that nobody’s been able to accomplish for 10 years. Start with something that everybody wants to do. But be cognizant of your direction and focus on it. Stay focused on it until you get it right. It’s going to take some resources.
It sounds like you’re saying that towns should start off becoming known for one thing rather than seeking improvements in several different areas.
The benefit is tremendous because, number one, you’ll have a success, and once you have a success, you have people believing in you and ready to commit resources and investment in you. Secondly, that success is going to improve your business-investment climate. I don’t care if you’re in a low-income neighborhood, or you’re in your downtown or wherever you are, once you get investment that’s working, you’ll improve the climate. And then of course you’ll have to pick a second and third thing (to accomplish). But then you’ll begin to get some momentum. Make sure you have a strong vision that understands where you sit in the region and what your niche is. And then target. Target carefully. Then evaluate. Make sure you understand what success means. And then go back and check if you’ve been successful.
How important can the mayor be in the scheme of things?
The mayor is essential, because the mayor is really the person who should be able to organize or has to organize community support behind the idea. And that’s hard, because some people may not see that they’re winning in whatever course of action is chosen. Obviously you have to make sure everybody is included as much as possible in the way forward, but it’s really the mayor’s job to play the main leadership role.