Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Power to the People

Part Three of a Three-Part Series by Holly Olson. (View Parts One and Two.)

In Part Two of my post on Wheaton, I was perhaps a little hard on our County Executive. It is not my intent to make him out to be the bad guy, but I do believe that we all need a little tough love every so often to get our butts in gear. And since I am an equal opportunity distributor of tough love, I feel that I must now turn my attention to the Wheaton community.

If there is one truth in politics, it is this: politicians pay attention to you if you make some noise. What do I mean by noise? Noise can take a lot of forms. It can be subtle (political contributions), it can be loud (letters, emails, public testimony), or it can be electoral (voting for candidates based on whether they support your issue).

Wheaton does many things well, but the one thing that the community does not do so well is MAKE SOME NOISE. Does this mean that there are no activists? No civic associations? No business groups? Absolutely not. In fact, many of them are vocal in sharing their concerns about Wheaton. But too often this takes place on a singular level. They do not speak with a united voice, and therefore they lack power. But when Wheaton does speak with a unified voice, the impact can be significant. I offer the following story to illustrate my point.

This past summer, the County was going to extend parking meter hours in the urban district parking lots. Businesses in all the affected urban districts were understandably upset. Downtown Silver Spring launched a massive campaign to get this reversed. And, lo and behold, Ike Leggett was listening. In fact, he listened so well to Silver Spring that he was going to reverse the hours for Silver Spring but not for Wheaton.

Given how precarious the businesses climate was for many of our restaurants, a group of us in Wheaton realized that we could not let this happen. We could not, and should not, be at a competitive disadvantage with other areas in the county. So, at the urging of County Council Member Valerie Ervin and with the help of the non-profit group LEDC, we created our own anti-parking meter campaign. Together, we launched an on-line petition. We canvassed business owners and encouraged them to write to the politicians. We gave them 3,000 flyers to give to their customers so that they could write as well. We solicited letters from community associations. We had a block of people testify before the county council: business owners, non-profits, citizen associations, and activists alike. In short, we ran a multi-faceted campaign to let the politicians know that we were not going to take this.

When we first launched the campaign, there was a sense of resignation among the business community. They had been so used to just taking whatever the County dished out that they felt like there was nothing that they could do that would make a difference. But gradually, that changed. And for the first time since I have been active in the Wheaton community, I saw hope in the faces of business owners. They began to realize that their actions did matter, and that they could make a difference. Why? Because they were united, they spoke with one voice, and they mounted an aggressive campaign to fight back. I share this story because I truly believe that more of this type of action needs to take place in Wheaton. Not just within the business community, but all facets of the community.

As we speak, there are efforts underway to do just that. The Latino Economic Development Corporation (LEDC), a non-profit that provides technical assistance, training, and financing in the area is working with Wheaton business owners to launch a Wheaton Small Business Alliance. The goal of this group is to advocate and support local businesses while promoting the principles of diversity and economic and environmental sustainability. This is an important first step because it seeks to unite the business community, which has long been fragmented. If this is successful, I believe it will serve as a catalyst for other such efforts to give a voice to Wheaton.

In the end, the bottom line is this. If the Wheaton community wants to be a political priority in Montgomery County, they must unite and pursue their interests more aggressively. There must be constant pressure. They must demand to be treated with the same respect as other urban districts such as Bethesda and Silver Spring, and they must hold their politicians accountable when they do not. The only ones that can fight for Wheaton are the community itself — therein lies the power of the people.

Holly Olson is the former Chair of the Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee.

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