The recent decision by the Bangor City Council to part ways with its highly regarded city manager was originally explained with, “We’re heading in a new direction.” Since then, it has been reported that the council is now at work on a new “vision” for Bangor. While I applaud our councilors’ efforts to rebuild trust and their working relationships with one another, I am not optimistic that a council consensus will result in a new vision for Bangor, and very doubtful that it will result in a vision that the community genuinely shares and owns.
As someone who has participated in and provided counsel to many strategic planning processes, I feel confident in saying that lasting visions result from a leadership that engages many voices and interests. They don’t arise in isolation. Nor are they catchy slogans or a collection of plans piecemealed together — no matter how exciting some of these plans may be.
Visions that endure result from widely inclusive processes of both discovery and creation. A discovery process would focus on identifying the enduring characteristics of Bangor. What are we willing — as a community and citizenry — to preserve at all costs? What are the attributes that make Bangor special, unique and not just anywhere USA? These are our “quality of place assets,” which the Brookings report describes as being Maine’s No. 1 economic asset. This is the “glue component” of vision. It gives words to Bangor’s identity, no matter what may happen with growth, industry turnover, demographic changes, etc. A lasting vision will communicate to ourselves and others what we are committed to holding onto at all costs.
The second process required to develop lasting vision is creative and forward-looking. What is our shared picture of Bangor’s future? Ideally, this picture is vivid, bold and inspiring. More importantly, it is widely shared and owned. Whereas an individual or small group may be able to craft a vision for a small business, in the public sphere, lasting vision results only from a creative process that allows for many voices to be heard.
But gathering community input and support for a vision is just the start of the hard work. A vision without a plan for achieving it is like a sailing ship without a rudder. You know where you want to get to, and the wind might just blow you there, but odds are you’ll get blown off course at some point. In the same way that I urge my clients to take the time to plan — especially in the most challenging of times — I hope that the council will take the time to set a clear course for the city and, then, will put in place a plan that will outlast the current council and provide guidance into the future.
With roughly 30,000 paying “customers” in Bangor and a complex organization employing hundreds of people, we need our elected officials to commit to a visioning and planning process that engages our community — that asks more of us than to trust blindly, and that puts our talents, aspirations and perspectives to work. No question, there’s hard work involved in designing and hosting many different types of forums so that a diversity of voices may be heard, and in listening long enough to hear the “song being expressed beneath the words,” and in making tough choices and trade-offs in the face of realistic constraints. These are some of the basic components of a productive visioning and strategic planning process. Still, the most successful corporations, businesses and organizations take the time to do this important work. Shouldn’t the city of Bangor?
The truth is that crafting a real and lasting vision and plan for Bangor will take not only leadership on behalf of our council, but also courage. The courage comes in standing up to those who are unable to see the value of anything that doesn’t cut their taxes today and to those who don’t appreciate or understand strategic planning. It will also take courage to invest time and money into a process that truly listens to what the people of Bangor want. I believe the residents of Bangor are ready to work together to achieve an exciting and ambitious vision for our city. Here’s hoping that our elected officials are ready to do the same.
Kathryn Hunt is a nonprofit and business consultant who lives in Bangor.