Mayor Ostenburg Reports from NLC Conference in Washington, D.C.

john-ostenburg-05142007Washington, D.C.–(ENEWSPF)– Park Forest Mayor John A. Ostenburg was among approximately 2,500 elected municipal officials from across the country attending the 2009 Congressional City Conference of the National League of Cities (NLC). Mayor Ostenburg provided officials in Park Forest with summary updates from the conference, which he says offered “a number of insights that should be of interest to us as local policy makers.”

The following are some of the highlights the mayor sent from that gathering, beginning with notes on sessions held on Sunday, March 15.

Retail Sales & Closings

Christy McFarland, manager of the NLC’s research programs, provided statistical data that showed local retailers are suffering much more than are national chains. She said the closings of big national operations such as Circuit City have created the illusion that big retailers are suffering, but “Walmart is doing very well.” The true victims of the economic downturn are local businesses, especially those found in downtowns and on “Main Street.” A recent study shows that the latter represent 65% of retail closings. Small businesses also have much more difficulty in accessing credit. She suggested that municipalities should be doing a retail market analysis to see ways they might assist locally-owned small businesses. Internet sales and big-box centers such as Walmart have had a dramatic impact on the generation of sales taxes in many communities. Local businesses cannot compete in that kind of retail climate, so more service-oriented businesses are developing as locally-owned operations.

Regional Collaboration

Robert Simpson, president and CEO for the Metropolitan Development Association of Syracuse and Central New York, gave an overview of the way in which a regional approach to economic development has been successful in a 12-county mid-state section of New York. The NLC has embarked on a campaign to promote more regional approaches to economic development as an alternative to “dog-eat-dog” competition among municipalities to attract businesses away from one another. His organization consists of 200 partners from business, government, education, and not-for-profits. It has been successful in creating a number of new jobs, especially in the “green energy” field.

Simpson recommended the following steps:

  1. identify easy “wins” in order to generate early enthusiasm among partners;
  2. be pro-active in looking at new areas for development — especially “green” areas;
  3. “economic” development, “community” development, and “workforce” development must be united into one concept;
  4. municipal leaders must recognize that “boundaries” are a handicap — if it’s good for the region, it should be supported even if within another municipality’s boundary;
  5. be visionary — “constantly expect the unexpected.”

Topics That Should Be Explored

  • The new workforce must be developed along different lines than in the past; innovative education, especially as it relates to light industrial and “green” initiatives, needs to be implemented at the secondary, community college, and university levels; local leaders must foster this implementation.
  • More collaboration between labor and government is needed if good-paying jobs, with appropriate benefits, are to be made available to our residents; local leaders need to foster increased diversity in the workforce so that all segments of the population benefit.
  • Regional purchasing of goods and services provide more local benefits than does purchasing from national retailers; local purchasing provides for more dollars to be infused into the local economy, which benefits everyone; a cheaper price is not necessarily what will pay off in the long run; local leaders must advance this concept with their constituents

Notes from Monday, March 16

NLC Agenda

NLC President Kathleen Novak outlined the primary goals of the organization for federal action in her address to conference attendees. They are

  1. health care reform,
  2. transportation infrastructure needs,
  3. energy-efficiency block grants,
  4. repair of the nation’s financial system, and
  5. stabilization of the housing market.

These are the topics that the various speakers — including administration officials — are addressing in their remarks at the conference.

Chris Matthews on Obama

MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews had nothing but good words to say about President Obama and his administration in his keynote address to the conference, and — judging from the applause — the audience agreed with him. He said the president has two key roles that he must play at this juncture:(A) crisis manager, and (B) president of destiny.

As regards crisis manager, Matthews noted that America has a tradition of optimistically attacking crises; in his words, “When we face a big crisis, we make big decisions.” Matthews also noted that the “Economy will be tough for at least two more years — perhaps more.” He said as a “president of destiny,” President Obama must deal with three big issues: (1) health care reform, (2) energy and the dependence on foreign oil, and (3) improvements in education. He complimented the president and his administration on how they have rolled up their sleeves and tackled problems head-on from the first minutes in the White House: “If you’re going to get it done, do it now,” Matthews said. Matthews also noted that President Obama is uniquely astute in how he handles his political opponents; the key to success, Mathews said, is to “marginalize the opposition.” Obama has done that, he said.

On Being “Green”

Lots of stuff on “green.” According to Richard Moe, many older buildings are more energy efficient than newer ones; in addition, he pointed to all the wasted energy involved in the tear-down itself, and the fact that once a building is demolished, little of its components are recyclable. According to Moe, a federal rehab tax credit is available for some buildings.

At the same session, James Corliss of Transportation for America stressed the value of transit-oriented developments. According to his statistics, if people live within a half-mile of public transportation, they are 42% more likely not to use their automobiles to travel to and from work; if they live beyond a half-mile, the are only 4% more likely to do so. Even in TOD-communities (Transit Oriented Development), however, statistics show that residents are much more likely to use their automobiles for “errand” trips. Corliss suggests more “errand” locations – – grocery stores, drug stores, etc. — within a TOD to avoid this extra auto usage. He said TOD retail should be “quality,” and not “quantity.”

Listening to Corliss speak, I had an idea: why not make free comuter parking available in Downtown Park Forest with shuttle buses (Jolly Trolley) running to and from the train station; doing so would (1) foster more use of public transportation, which is better for the environment; and (2) place more people in the downtown on a daily basis, thus creating more opportunity for retail sales.

Remarks in the afternoon by Energy Secretary Steven Chu were absolutely outstanding. How wonderful it is to have an administration with a cabinet member who is a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. He said the goal of the Obama administration as regards energy is to (1) create more jobs to lift the economy, (2) mitigate against dangerous climate change, and (3) free the U.S. of its dependence on foreign oil. He pointed out that “green” jobs cannot be outsourced. Grants are available to help citizens weatherize their homes in order to save on energy costs. He described a program in Berkeley where the city advances money to citizens to weatherize their homes and then adds the cost of that loan to the property tax bill, along with 6% interest. With the energy savings that the citizen realizes, he/she pays the loan and the interest and yet ends up ahead.

Dr. Chu said $3 billion is in the Recovery Act for energy efficiency for cities. Information is available at energy.gov/recovery. Environ mental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson followed Secretary Chu at the afternoon session and said investment in “green” economy is the way out of our current fiscal dilemma.

Rail Transportation

I hoped to learn something helpful for dealing with Canadian National in an afternoon session on new federal regulations regarding freight. I didn’t. While there is concern about U.S. ports being undercut by Canadian and Mexican ports, the general feeling is that rail is better than trucking and is good for the economy. The three speakers acknowledged that local communities will have to endure inconveniences because of rail expansion, but that is better than the environmental problems everyone will have to live with if trucking continues to expand. Rail is the clean energy alternative. However, some new federal monies may be available to help mitigate the problems faced by local communities.

COPS Program is Back

Attorney General Eric Holder took the occasion of his afternoon remarks to the conference to announce that the COPS program is back. He was the key figure in overseeing the program when he was assistant AG under Janet Reno during the Clinton administration. As of today, $1 billion in new dollars are being put into the program, which no longer will require a local match. Mr. Holder promised that communities applying for the grants will receive an answer within 15 days of making application. He said two out of every three local police departments are experiencing cuts in staffing because of budgetary problems.

On a humorous side note: Chris Matthews commented about how Rod Blagojevich did more for television ratings during the month of January than anything else in history. Speaking of Blagojevich, he said, “Here’s a guy who thinks ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’ are three different things!”

Tuesday, March 17

Today brought closure to the formal part of the NLC Congressional City Conference. Tomorrow there are some visits to Capitol Hill, but all the conference sessions concluded before this evening’s performance by the Capitol Steps. Everyone at the conference is saying the same thing: no conference ever has been as meaty as has been this one.

In the past, the possibility of one cabinet member, or a sub-cabinet member, participating in one of the sessions was the extent of things; this year, addresses were given by Attorney General Eric Holder, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. But the truly remarkable thing about the presentations were the way in which they very so very different from presentations by previous administration representatives. Those were always scripted remarks by “suits,” who were very careful never to deviate from the prepared text.

The presentations by the Obama folks were real, vibrant, full of useful information, with genuine connection between the speaker and the audience. Not only did they announce a number of programs that are providing new funding for local governments, they also asked municipal leaders to provide their input on things that are happening at the national level.

This afternoon, there was a last-minute disappointment in the cancellation of an appearance by White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett. We found out about it as were were sitting in the conference hall waiting for her address to begin. She was called to Capitol Hill suddenly to represent the President in an important budget meeting with the Speaker of the House. However, in her place, her chief of staff gave a truly outstanding speech. Michael Strautmanis is someone with whom other members of the South Suburban Coalition and I met last Wednesday; last year we met with him while he still was part of then-Senator Obama’s staff. He is a close friend of Olympia Fields Mayor Linzey Jones, having clerked for him as a young law student some years ago. Stautmanis brought with him today David Agnew from the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, with whom we also met on Wednesday. Agnew has a background in local government, having been senior assistant to the mayor of Charleston, S.C., for a number of years. Both Strautmanis and Agnew pledged to keep the White House doors open to local government.