Understanding table stakes; pursuing excellence

Union Square - monument, sunsplash

At a recent county board meeting, one of the members wanted to know what a pedestrian-bicycle bridge over the Wisconsin River was really producing for us in terms of revenue. Since it’s not a toll bridge, nobody knows the answer. But one thing we do know is that some of the most successful communities are paying attention to having connected and attractive pedestrian and bicycle trails – both for recreational use and as a legitimate means of travel for people who enjoy a more active lifestyle. Likewise, some express reservations about an $80,000 study of the availability of broadband coverage. Why is that an issue for the county anyway? Well, the ability to quickly send and receive data is a piece of basic infrastructure in the new economy. If we have an inadequate capability in a given area, then we’ve got the equivalent of black hole, where many types of economic success will not be possible.

The same thing happens with individual businesses when they don’t keep up with customer expectations. A few years back, I was suggesting to a coffee shop owner that there was a need to put in free WI-FI for customers and post a sign to tell people it was there. Like any good businessperson, the first question was why would someone want to add a new operating cost that might not produce any return. Would it attract new customers? The answer was free WI-FI was rapidly becoming an industry standard for coffee shops across the country. Failing to recognize it would eventually cripple efforts to gain new customers and imperil some of the existing base as more people considered it an important feature adding value.

Back in the 1960s, it was common to see motel signs pointing out that they had clean, air-conditioned rooms and color television sets. Put that sign out there today and you’re likely to lose potential customers. It’s not because people don’t like air-conditioned rooms, color TV or good housekeeping. It’s because they expect and even assume that is the case. To point it out would practically make the lodging owner look like an idiot. It is table stakes. It doesn’t get you anything but the right to be in the game to potentially win or lose — but without it, you’re out.

If we want people to see our community as an attractive place to live, then we need to understand some of the things that are important in their lives. These things are dynamic, so what is cutting edge now may well be either presumed or dated at some point going forward. Successful communities recognize this and look out on the edge for improvement. Failing communities may all but ignore these things or say they can’t afford them. They may ultimately be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century after they realize that they’ve got a problem and there is more to life than simply pinching pennies and trying to look thrifty.

It’s not that taxes aren’t important, but they clearly aren’t the be-all and end-all that some would have you believe, either. It’s no secret that some of the most successful and vibrant communities in the U.S. are not those with the lowest taxes, but those in which people are willing to pay the costs in view of the value. One of the ways to identify a real economic powerhouse is by comparatively high costs for housing, parking and just about everything else, including taxes. You will also see diversity and progressive leadership that is sometimes willing to push the envelope.

There can be differences between generations about some of these things. But young professionals, mid-career managers, families with soccer moms and vital retirees aren’t necessarily always going to be as different as some people seem to believe or as unwilling to support accommodating the interests of others. Most people who come to a coffee shop don’t bring a laptop and they understand that WI-FI isn’t free, but they don’t begrudge that addition to the overhead, do they? 

There are many paths to successfully achieving a unique and positive identity, but expecting it to happen by accident may often be hoping for too much.  Just like there is a difference between making a living and making a life, there will always be an element in the community who believe every pothole should be filled before any “extras” can even be considered. Likewise, it is unreasonable to tax people out of their homes for things that are clearly frills or that would best be funded primarily by the users who find them valuable. I can’t give you a cost-benefit analysis of having fireworks on Independence Day, but I think we ought to try to find a way to do that, even in dire times (and maybe especially.) The secret is to achieve a balance that takes into account what table stakes really consist of and to also provide areas in which to excel in ways that will truly set a community apart.

JR

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