There was a time when the pursuit of civic excellence in Tampa Bay seemed to be a much higher priority than it is today. When we were innocent enough to care (and see big headlines) that Tampa was awarded an "All America City" designation. When the meaning of civic involvement was broader than just whining on a blog about local government.
That time was 1990, to be precise.
Now, less than two decades later, civic involvement and (more importantly) the idea of learning more about civic involvement seems nowhere in our collective consciousness, even if great civic activities are under way every day in many neighborhoods across the Bay. Maybe it's not the PR priority it once was, or maybe it's the dearth of local news coverage in our shrinking daily newspapers.
For local elected officials, the repository of knowledge about improving your community's civic health and democracy was the All America City awards' custodian, the National Civic League (on Facebook, as well). The NCL was founded in 1894 by my fave president, Teddy Roosevelt, and other Progressives of that era.
The chairwoman of the National Civic League this year is former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman, who was mayor of Tampa in 1990 when the city won its designation. "Civic democracy is what I call it," Freedman said over coffee in a South Tampa shop recently. And the National Civic League is bringing its annual community awards conference to the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel and Marina June 17-19.
So why has there been so little said or written about this killer opportunity for local civic activists and politicians to attend and not only get some good training but hear some ideas that worked in other communities. Ideas we can steal.
"Last year, I must have heard 10 programs that could be applicable here," Freedman said. "It's great thievery."
That's how Tampa got its 1990 award-winning programs, or at least some of them. Paint Your Heart Out, a city-led volunteer effort to paint houses for low-income and elderly residents, was lifted from a similar prorgam in Pittsburgh. ("...We made it better," Friedman laughed.)
The other two programs in the 1990 submission were the police QUAD Squad that targeted high-traffic drug sales areas (still in place) and a Peer-to-Peer Code Enforcement effort (which is no longer active).
The award recognizes cities, regions or neighborhoods as "communities that are overcoming their challenges through innovative leadership and collaborative problem solving." And Tampa is among the 30 finalists this year, which were announced two weeks ago, along with such cities as Phoenix; Wichita, Kansas; Toledo, Ohio; Chattanooga, Tenn., and Des Moines. It was the only Florida city named.
When I wrote about this on my blog, I got some comments that Freedman and I were being too touch on civic spirit locally. East Tampa activist Terry Neal wrote, "Your article fails to mention the civic projects that were part of the 2009 application, which garnered the finalist status. If, before, writing the article, research had been done on just one project, the 40th Street Corridor Enhancement Project, you would have not only found considerable civic involvement by the neighborhoods benefiting from this project, but also city-citizen partnerships that have been formed.
"Even local schools were involved, particular a design contest for the 40th Street Bridge, by King High School students," he continued. "We are on a journey that is very much the ideal for which the All-American City Award seeks. I'm not sure why you're knocking civic involvement in Tampa in 2009, but I can tell you that there is a lot of it here, in this part of Tampa."
Activists in other parts of the Bay could learn a lot from Neal, and there is still time to learn from the other cities' successes, too. During the awards convention, each of the finalist cities gives a presentation on the programs that they highlighted in their award applications. Lots and lots of new, fresh ideas for Tampa Bay. Freedman said it is perfect for neighborhood activists.
Ten cities will end up winning after they make their presentations. But all of Tampa Bay can win if we are willing to hear how others are getting the job done and look at whether those techniques can work here, too.
(Full disclosure: CL's CEO, Ben Eason, is on the Host Committee for the NCL's upcoming convention. He did not, however, participate in the assignment, writing or editing of this story.)