Note: This is the full-text of an editorial published in today’s Daily Tar Heel. Ryan Tuck did an excellent job editting for brevity – I’m including the full-text here for completeness.

An election does not a leader make, but rather a temperament and a set of skills.

Leaders with vision will make sure their decisions are accretive, adding
one brick on another, until their visionary “cathedral” is set on sound
foundations. The more pedestrian of elected officials will forge ahead
without vision – making decisions as expediency demands. These folk may be
trusted to guide a ship along well traversed paths but they will never
bound forward to undiscovered shores.

Our Council has recently discussed two paths to social and economic
sustainability.

One path, of traditional “bricks-and-mortar”, has the overwhelming,
enthusiastic and at times giddy endorsement of our elected leadership.
The other path, which promises a much lower risk and a much higher reward
than the first, has languished in a backwater of indecisive malaise.

Four years and over a $1 million spent, Council has a plan that will
trade valuable Downtown public properties for an unclear economic reward.
The plan for 233 residential units, boutique shops and mixed-commercial
space seems sustained by an internal enthusiasm buoyed by a few
reasonable-sounding propositions. How sound are these assumptions? Is it
true that more folk living downtown implies a concomitant increase in
economic activity? Based on current plans, every new resident will have
to leave downtown to go grocery shopping. Will a barrage of boutique
shopping outlets really attract consumers to a downtown struggling with
parking issues? Will there be a demand for the type of commercial and
residential space currently envisioned? Do these exuberant economic
predictions make sense in light of downtown’s current glut of commercial
space? What of the proliferation of similar, commercially-sponsored
developments, the environmentally touted seven-story Greenbridge
highrise, Rosemary Street’s Shortbread Lofts and the nearly completed
Rosemary Village?

With local taxpayers kicking in not only the property but also an
increasing bit of cash for a project whose escalating estimated cost has
already gone from the low $70 million mark to above $90 million and with
$500K surprises, like digging under lot #5, the bet on traditional
development appears less tenable.

Beyond the capital costs, we’ll be gambling that the loss of our historic
human-scale “village” downtown is well-worth the anticipated commercial
and social returns.

In the end, no matter how “soft modernistic” the building designs look,
the project amounts to a rather retro pedestrian effort to boost
downtown’s fortunes.

The second path lays the foundation for decades of social and economic
progress. It relies, though, on what Swift called “the art of seeing
things invisible.”

The wireless and fiber optic means maybe be “invisible” but the ends of a
community-owned municipal network are not. Unlike the well-trodden path
of “bricks-and-mortar”, this practical project, until recently, has
lacked political torch bearers. In a welcoming convergence of visionary
leadership, Councilmember Laurin Easthom has joined UNC Board of Trustee
and Downtown Partnership member Roger Perry and Chancellor Moeser in
calling for an increased focus on deploying this service that promises
much richer rewards throughout the entire community.

Municipal networking could be provided at either a bare fraction of the
downtown development’s cost or, if we follow in the footsteps of San
Francisco, at no cost to our community at all.

Recognizing the utility to both our town’s citizenry, Councilmember
Easthom has put this initiative front-and-center on her first year’s
agenda. Besides adding it to the Council’s 2006 goals, she’s sponsoring a
local “teach in” to educate our populace on the many benefits of municipal
networking. Eventually reaching every corner of our community, this
network will help bridge the digital divide, provide increased first
responder support, boost our town’s economic profile and free us from the
vagaries of the current communications monopolies. A leader with a
vision, she’s prepared to seize each opportunity, whether greenway
expansion or NC-DOT traffic signal upgrades or road improvements to lay
the fiber optic “bricks” of a successful community-owned utility.

Both projects might appear to be “castles in the clouds” but the
risk/reward profiles are much different. Luckily, we now have some
champions evaluating the next steps in building a people’s communications
“cathedral” – a project which will have a much more profound effect on our
community’s long-term social and economic sustainability than any
monumental glass-and-brick edifice.

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