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Community Unfinished

 

Achieving the Potential
of Small Cities

Albert Kelly, Mayor
By Albert Kelly
Mayor, City of Bridgeton
Member, NJLM
Executive Board

As I look ahead to 2012, I realize that Bridgeton, like many smaller communities, is a small city with big city problems. We are very much “communities unfinished.” But unlike the big cities, the problems we face as “second tier” cities come with a set of opportunities that challenge us to examine assumptions about our identity and our strengths.

The distance between problems and their solutions might seem shorter in a small community, but this is misleading. It is easy to be a critic in a smaller city; to stand on the sidelines and point to what’s wrong with things. But at the end of the day, it’s still the sidelines. While I always want to hear from the critics (having been one myself), they often offer “easy” answers, without ever being accountable for the outcome. Faced with the details, things are never so easy. That’s part of why I entered public service.

In reality, the distance between problem and solution can be enormous. With the mindset of “how things used to be,” would be reformers expect leaders to make unrealistic changes, despite current regulations and limited resources. Second tier cities have a long way to go, but our communities are more than the brick, mortar and steel of their buildings, or the laws that govern them. We are more than the opinions of our critics or the sum of our programs. Since my election, I’ve been impressed with the willingness of our citizens to work together to solve our problems.

coins and small bricks stacked up

At its most basic, this means finding ways to connect the downtown to the city park and the waterfront to the south side. We must join the forces of our industrial park with those in the central business district. We need to support links to hiking trails and bike paths for residents throughout the city.

On the practical side, we must connect workers with jobs, supply with demand and our resources with needs. At its best, it’s connecting style with culture, the past with the present, people with people, and neighbors with neighbors. This will enable Bridgeton to create a sense of “place” and a real sense of belonging for our residents, visitors and businesses. It’s not easy to do, but it is possible with small scale, actionable projects and initiatives.

Small cities, such as ours are works in progress. To some extent, every municipality is an “unfinished work.” They are constantly changing and meant to be unfinished. But unlike larger cities, rural or suburban places, the challenge for the small city is not to get stuck trying to recreate a past that’s long since vanished.

In decades past, so many small cities had their identity centered on a specific industry, a major employer or a prime resource. When that employer left town or the economy changed, we lost our economic base—or even our identity. Our challenge today is to write the next chapter. Small
cities have the challenge and the opportunity to become what we want them to be. To succeed we must forge our own path and look beyond the large growth models from “first tier” cities.

The shift to a “new normal” was unsettling. It has hardened some people into opposing change, rather than pointing us toward a different, better future. The words of Woodrow Wilson still hold true: “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”

Woodrow Wilson understood that regardless of what we may have been in the past or what we hope to become in the future, we are “unfinished.” This means embracing change, despite the resistance. The only way to adapt to a new reality and overcome our problems is to meet the new opportunities and possibilities of our time. The potential for new partnerships and a fresh identity comes with being “unfinished.” That awareness is fundamental to the success of our small, second tier cities. We can succeed. So here’s to opportunities and optimism of communities “unfinished” like Bridgeton

 

Originally published in New Jersey Municipalities, Volume 89, Number 4, April 2012

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