Thursday, September 22, 2016

Massaging the Message

It was not overdone. Tasteful, not lavish. A table was set out with refreshments--some fruit and cheese, perhaps some sweets. There was wine along with other non-alcoholic drinks.

The setting was a large floor in a downtown office building which was divided up into smaller work areas. A large conference table dominated the section where we were located. As I recall the ceilings were unfinished and an interesting light fixture hung down over our table.

I had been invited to a small group gathering of the Howard Hughes Corporation to discuss their vision of the upcoming legislation on downtown development. I gather that their goal was to spread the Howard Hughes message through hospitality and polite discussion. They invited people who have a voice in the community, in the hopes that those voices would be shared and amplified.

It was a pleasant enough event. Greg Fitchitt touched on improvements to the downtown area and then moved on to the two areas of importance: affordable housing, and the TIF. I found it interesting that the tone taken by HHC employees if any mention was made of differing points of view was, "Yes, there are these misconceptions out there, and we don't have any idea where they are coming from."

It reminded me of grownups who take a sad and sorry tone with disobeying children. "No, Billy, I'm not angry that you didn't make the right choice. I'm just...disappointed."

Also, since none of the dissenting folks were invited to be there, we as attendees were presented with the Howard Hughes way of life vs. those nameless, mysterious misconceptions. It certainly was their right to present themselves in this way. I personally found it a little odd.

I'm excited about what's happening in Columbia. I have written about that here many times. I can't wait for the opening of the Chrysalis in Merriweather Park in Symphony Woods. I want to see better transit, more walkable, bikeable streets and the kind of residences and businesses that bring in younger people to become a part of the Columbia experience. I have followed the evolution of the Downtown Plan with a sense of positive anticipation.

I suspect that's why I was invited to this event.

But two things that were said that day gave me pause. In discussing the TIF, Greg Fitchitt said, "You can't have the Downtown Plan without the TIF. You can have garden apartments and Walmarts, but you can't have the Downtown Plan."

Really? Did he just say that? I jotted something down and then waited for a turn to ask a question.

"I'm just taking notes to make sure I understand everything. Did you just say that the Howard Hughes Corporation isn't able to fulfill the mission of the Downtown Plan without the TIF?"

There was a brief moment of uncomfortable silence. Then Mr. Fitchitt confirmed that was what he had said.

Wait, what? Wasn't Howard Hughes present during the development of the Downtown Plan? "Walmarts and garden apartments?" Why didn't that come up then?

I'm not angry that you said that, Mr. Fitchitt, I'm just...disappointed.

And one more thing. In addressing the HHC plan for affordable housing, Mr. Fitchitt went to great lengths to explain how complicated it all is.

"Now Jen says it's really simple. And her plan is simple. She..."

Jen? I beg your pardon? You are first-naming a member of the Howard County Council?

Her name is Councilwoman Terrasa. The last person to first-name her in public was the Chair of the Board of Education, and it wasn't a good look for her, either.

I thank the folks at HHC for their hospitality. The event was quite informative, and I met some interesting people. What I learned most of all is that if you limit who you invite to sit around your table, you have a greater opportunity to hone and fine-tune your message. It's an interesting technique.

If we are going to get this right, I think that the County Council is going to need to be more broad-minded than that. I think there's still some negotiating to be done to make this a fairer and more equitable plan for Columbia. Yes, it must be feasible and financially profitable for Howard Hughes. But it also has to include the people who weren't invited for wine and cheese.








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