The city of Wenatchee will soon be receiving a comprehensive report from a team of architects who looked at ways to improve South Wenatchee. They’ve identified a lengthy list of opportunities to build a greater sense of community and enhance safety and livability.
The most important question to be answered is what the City Council will do with this report.
If the council takes a business-as-usual approach, they will identify some projects to do and move on to other issues. The report, under this scenario, will be considered all of the information necessary to make decisions. Projects will be selected and that will be that.
But taking that approach means the city would miss a golden opportunity to rebuild public trust and confidence and set a new standard for civic engagement. That opportunity should not be missed.
As Imagine South Wenatchee steering committee member Thom Nees put it, building community ought to be the goal rather than just the city doing projects for that area. Nees is right on the money.
The trust and confidence issues among citizens, business and the city have been festering for a number of years when the city eschewed the notion of working to build a sense of community in favor of being primarily a regulatory agency and economic development driver, with some dubious results. Rather than looking for ways to stitch the community together, the city acted in ways that fractured relations with the community it presumes to serve.
It’s important to note that Mayor Frank Kuntz and the City Council have made important strides to improve confidence in city government in the past year, but more needs to be done.
That’s why the City Council would be wise to chart a community-centered course with the South Wenatchee study.
One of the major issues with the AIA report is that significant groups who have an important stake in that area didn’t participate in the discussions, including business leaders and residents. I’ve heard from key executives who expressed concern that the city is going to shove a decision down their throats, an understandable sentiment given the top-down, my-way-or-the-highway approach to governance that existed in the city in recent years.
It’s also highly questionable whether the residents of South Wenatchee have been adequately heard on the issues.
So if the people who live there and those who run businesses haven’t been effectively engaged, then making decisions based on a single report would be foolhardy.
Now is the time for the city to set a different standard by creatively engaging the public without preconceived notions. We’ve seen this work effectively with the Wenatchee Learns project, the Foothills Community Strategy convened by the Land Trust and the Trust for Public Lands, and the Stemilt-Squilchuck Community Vision, which involved orchardists, conservationists and residents.
Those community-centered approaches — engaging people with a neutral third party to find where common ground exists and then deciding what actions to take — build a sense of community. Nothing is more important than that.
Why a neutral third party? Since there are profound trust issues with Wenatchee’s city government today, having city officials convene meetings to discuss the issues in the report and brainstorm ideas would be problematic. It would be more effective to have an independent party facilitate the important conversations so people can feel more confident that their opinions will be listened to and acknowledged.
As a community, the objective should be to do what’s best for the most people for the long term. That will only happen if we take the time to engage people creatively in charting a course for the future.
That course of action would serve the public best.