NOBODY LIKES TO BE CALLED A RACIST. Nobody likes to be called a self-serving plutocrat. Nobody likes to get mugged by half-truths and misquotes in the local tabloid. Nobody likes it, but some people can take it. Not our so-called business leadership. Like a group of 10-year-olds terrified by the neighborhood bully, they run at the merest threat of trouble.
Once this was a city of business owners, and their commitment to this place-heart, mind and soul-transformed it from a little Southern town into a major American metropolis. They took their share of flak. Then they returned it tenfold. Anyone who got in their path was likely to be trampled. That’s how this city got built.
Now we live in the Era of the CEO. Most CEOs are smart, astute and personable. They are also cautious, politically naive and scared of their own shadows. They want to be known as good guys, and by definition, good guys do not make enemies. However, people who build cities do make enemies. Builders are doers, and doers aren’t loved until they are in their graves.
But let’s also look at this from the other side of the desk. This new breed of business leaders-the CEOs-can’t justify to their Wall Street owners the time, the energy and the good will they would have to expend to tackle public problems. When you’re called a racist, or accused of self dealing, or smeared in the local tabloid, the people who know you don’t pay any attention. But people who don’t know you, like the pension fund managers who hold your stock, might take it at face value. That’s not a risk worth taking.
So what is a city to do? Get along somehow without any help, support or muscle from its business community?
Cities exist to create wealth. A healthy city creates wealth for all of its citizens, not just for the comfortable few who live where they do because it’s a stone’s throw from their private planes at Love Field. Creating wealth is not about doing good deeds. Our corporate people are, for the most part, good citizens. They give enormous a-mounts of time and money to good deeds, But leadership is about taking tough stands and backing them up with big bucks.
Cleveland-the same poor, benighted, bankrupt Cleveland we used to laugh at- is creating wealth. Its downtown is booming, with a new arena, a new ballpark and the Rock V Roll Hall of Fame. The tax revenues are flowing in again, and the money is going to neighborhoods that need help. How did Cleveland-with its awful image and poor demographics-manage to do what we seem incapable of doing?
As it turns out, Cleveland recognized nine years ago what we are just discovering, that its new breed of business leader was not engaged in civic affairs and was scared to death of getting engaged. City officiais did something very smart. They formed an organization of the 50 top CEOs in the city. The organization had two purposes: (a) to salvage its city, and (b) to provide a protective shell so that no one member could be singled out for attack while they did the salvaging. The organization has three rules: first, that no minutes are kept; second, that all votes are unanimous, even when they aren’t; and third, no matter how you voted your company coughs up the same amount as everyone else. When negotiations on the new arena were stalled in Cleveland (anything familiar here?), the organization stepped in with $20 million that started things rolling again.
And guess what? The model they used was the old Dallas Citizens Council, which one Cleveland businessman told me “was the most effective powerhouse for clean government and getting things done in the history of American cities.” The Dallas business community has, of course, discarded the old model-why, I will never understand. But I’m sure some public relations consultant is standing in the wings with an armful of position papers that explain it all away. My advice: throw the damned things in the trash.
The latest case in point is the new arena. We have the chance to bring vibrance and opportunity via a world-class facility. The reaction from the business community has been a collective shrug.
Dallas business needs to wake up. Good deeds don’t build cities. Tough deeds build cities. Wimps don’t build anything.