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What is a Healthy Community?

June 19, 2011 - Ernest Hohmeyer
Such a simple question and such an interesting and complicated answer.

What’s Really the Question?

Providing simple opinions on complicated questions is often at the root of our debate between environmental protection and development. For anyone to suggest that one factor like population trends, wetland impacts or taxes are by themselves the definition of a healthy place, may be skewing the definition of “community.”

Are simple indicators sometimes used by those who are more interested in pushing their particular agenda in which conflict enhances their “organizational health?” Does this happen on all sides of the debate from environmental protection to development?

I believe that many of us understand that an analysis of a community’s health needs to take in many factors. In a forum such as this article many of us can calmly understand this. Where it all falls down is when a particular project is discussed. This can range from a Wal-Mart coming into your community to the state purchasing more land in the Park. And information exists out there ranging from the Adirondack Park Regional Assessment Project to volumes of environmental data.

What’s The Problem Anyway?

What may be missing is an overall sustainable development plan for the Adirondack Park. This would take in not only economic indicators but environmental, social and community factors as well.

Second, should there be a management system that is responsible for a more holistic and integrated view of the Park’s economic and environmental condition and its future?

Can part of this acrimonious debate be targeted to the fact that we have parts of our unique human and natural habitat strewn out in un-organized piles all over the Blue Line and in Albany? Should there be a coordinated effort with a real plan on how they all best fit together to maximize this sense of place we call the Park?

How many times in business have we learned grudgingly or not, that some type of a plan is necessary for us to survive and to move forward? This plan is not based on one factor of “business health” but an integrated network of data to get a sense of where we are going and what we hope to accomplish. Our business plan cannot exist without an overall vision and once we set our course it is designed to be a monitoring tool that looks at the various indicators of the health of our business.

Do we have such a plan for the Park? For this jewel, how can we afford not to?

There seems to be pieces such as future state land purchases, DEC Unit Management Plans and the concept of Class A and B regulatory review at the APA among others, but does this give us a true plan?

Is part of our bitterness on the community side due to the fact that much of our community and economic planning is the sole responsibility of our small communities who often lack the resources and expertise to develop a plan for their future? Does it seem to many, that there is a multitude of environmental and regulatory resources but not the same effort and dedication when it comes to our communities future?

Does it frustrate others who realize that we recognize that healthy communities and a healthy environment are necessary for our survival and a healthy Park?

Does a true analysis of a community’s health get lost in the departmentalized filing cabinets and viewpoints of overlapping organizations? Can we truly understand the Parks overall health when we have overlapping regulatory, environmental, community and economic organizations - many whose mandates are responsible for areas inside and outside the Park?

An Adirondack Park Plan?

Is it time to consider an overall sustainable development plan for this sense of place we call the Park?

Can we begin this discussion without a clear sense of what a community is? Is a community a village boundary, a town or county? Is the definition of a community only regulated to its people? Does it also include its history and natural environment? Would we live in our communities if they did not have the trees and lakes which surround us? Can we continue to live in our communities if we do not have appropriate support services? Can our children come back to our communities if there are few quality job opportunities? Does tourism require a healthy environment?

I think we all know the answer to this. Is the real issue that when a development project or environmental assessment occurs it becomes dysfunctional in the emotional room of knee-jerk surgery completely devoid of thought-out planning? Is it because we do not have a clear vision or a road-map that begins to paint the canvas of what a healthy Adirondack Park might look like? Can we create a plan that takes into consideration the diversity of our individual communities and natural habitats?

The Park has been recognized around the world as a great experiment of man and nature. I was fortunate enough to be involved in several sustainable development missions into Eastern Europe when the Berlin Wall came down.

Armed with a whole slew of examples of both the good and the not-so-good of how we do this here, I came to realize very quickly that these Eastern European countries and the communities within them were all very different. Their excitement was that they now had the potential for the first time in over 50 years to create their own destiny. They did not want to necessarily become Western Europe but to recapture their own sense of place.

However, they recognized common regional bonds of history and natural features and an overall unity to Europe. What they wanted was a classic bottom-up approach to planning and not what they had lived through which was state mandated or in some cases from the Soviet Union. They wanted to partner, not be taken over by the economic power of Western Europe. Their emphatic tone was a lesson to me that I took back home. I came to realize that Star Lake did not want to become Lake Placid and that the Park was filled with diverse micro features of distinct natural and economic amenities.

Our Uniqueness is Our Strength

With a proper plan this uniqueness can play to the advantage of creating healthy communities. For example, as each of our communities indicates an interest in a certain type of future, for example, Saranac Lake in the arts and Lake Placid with sports, a plan can be devised that goes after this type of a future. In many cases, part of this road-map already exists.

However, similar to how we should not broad-brush the health of all of the communities in the Park as being in the same condition, we should not solicit new industry with the same vague approach. What a biotech company looks for in a healthy community is quite different than what a hotel chain considers.

And this is where many of our community plans fall short and that is in the follow-up stage. If we had these individual community plans tied in to an overall sustainable development plan for the Park we could begin the process of branding the Park for appropriate opportunities. This plan could also begin a long-term preventative “community health plan” that could be used as a monitoring tool for our economic and environmental habitats.

Again, we may not have to create something totally new or spend a great deal of resources to accomplish this. A framework may already exist that lies in the context of how the Adirondack Park Agency identifies Class A “regional projects” and Class B “local” projects, the DEC Unit Management Plans and efforts by communities to develop economic strategies.

Next week we will look at this.


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