EDITORIAL: Walking and chewing gum at the same time

by Mar 1, 2019OPINIONS





Iheard an impressive response to a commonly-used deflective statement. Those who love to hog the soapbox will attack a thought or direction leadership is taking by attempting to draw attention to the things that they think should be a priority. It happened during the Michael Cohen hearing on Capitol Hill yesterday. Several Republican Congresspersons were lamenting the work that they should be focusing on and that the focus on the Cohen hearings was a distraction or preventing Congress from “doing the work of the people.”

Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett (Democrat), representing the U.S. Virgin Islands, responded, “I have got a lot to do as well. I’ve got houses and schools to help rebuild in the Virgin Islands, expansion of voting rights, educational opportunities, criminal justice reform. Thank God the Democratic majority can walk and chew gum at the same time. So, we are here with you right now”.

To provide equal time to the other side, the same tactic was acceptable to the Democratic leadership during the Kavanaugh hearings while the Republicans were in the majority.

It is possible to work on multiple projects at the same time. Some in our community imply that highly visible economic development projects are being given the total focus of the Tribal Council and administration at the expense of municipal projects. This is just not true. Municipal projects are why economic development projects are essential. It is not possible to continue to sustain a $300 million annual spending plan without economic growth. And, while there are certainly efficiencies that we do not realize within the governmental structure, it is not realistic to think that any amount of “belt tightening” will result in a sustainable economy.

We have a golden goose, not geese. It is laying golden eggs on regular basis, for now. But with economists forecasting some form of recession over the next two years, and the ever-present threat of competition moving in around us, the golden egg laying schedule may be significantly curtailed. I know that the competition story has been trotted out before in every economic diversity discussion. It feels like you and I get hit with “the sky is falling” argument, only to find that the income is as healthy as it ever was. Tribal needs and wants keep growing. Costs for fulfilling services continue to rise. We are blessed in that we have good elder care, excellent child and student services, medical, housing, and community services. The leadership, over the years and based on community input, has created a network of tribal member care that should be the envy of any community (and certainly is the envy of many of our neighboring municipalities). They also cringe at the thought of finding the funding to supply a network of our size.

In our community, we argue over whether, and sometimes advocate for stopping economic development projects until municipal needs are met. Recently, significant workforce housing opportunities were argued against, even though they were mixed use that would allow for tribal and non-tribal housing. There were those who called for the project to be halted until the question of “better” tribal housing is addressed, insinuating that it hasn’t been in the process of being addressed all along.

During a recent town hall, community members suggested that Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) didn’t address the community needs and that somehow the tribal leadership was not listening to the community because the document didn’t have any of the community projects as they had presented them in the meetings.  Folks even implied that there was some sort of hidden agenda to keep community projects out of the document. The reality of it was that there was an agenda, but it wasn’t hidden.

Those who attended the CEDS public meetings were asked to give input on the projects that had already been selected by the planning board and Tribal Council. The CEDS is a document to guide projects that have revenue-generating potential or economic development. And, while you might find housing on a CEDS, it would be in the context of providing it to spur economic growth. In other words, workforce housing. Now, does the fact that community housing would not show up on the CEDS mean that the tribe has no plan or focus on putting Cherokee people in homes? Not at all. The CEDS is a planning document that is required for a planning grant that the Tribal Strategic Planning Program has received year-to-year for two decades. The grantor specifies in the requirements that the projects on the CEDS be measured for revenue generation potential. Community projects are not measured that way, and that is why those projects are not part of the CEDS. And it makes sense to use that CEDS to explore economic diversification, something that we desperately need if we are to have a sustainable future.

There are other project lists and plans throughout the tribe government. Hundreds of trained tribal employees and expert contractors are working on improving health care offerings, housing options, community amenities, and on every municipal project that you and I have let Tribal Council and the Executive Office know we want. It can never happen fast enough for us, and if you happen to be at the slow end of a tribal service, it is very frustrating. If you happen to be a service provider who cannot work fast enough to address a community member’s need, it is equally disappointing. No one wants anyone to suffer. Most of the public servants that you deal with to get tribal services are tribal members too.

Working with a big government is like piloting a big ship moving at top speed. Turning it in a particular direction requires a lot of time and a lot of room. And, as the leadership of the Titanic realized a little too late, once you spot the iceberg, you may not be able to change course in time to avoid a calamity. Economic development planning isn’t the end; it is a means. The means to continue the tremendous financial success of this Tribe and to generate the revenue to continue to provide and enhance services for our community. Economic prosperity means more community resources. Economic development is not done instead of community projects. It is done because of community projects. And, believe it or not, we, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, can walk and chew gum at the same time.