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Ruffalo: What does Auburn need? You tell me

By: Jim Ruffalo
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It was a simple question, and yet the complexity of the types of answers I received was stunning. The question? As I said, simple: What does Auburn need? Some of the answers may appear flippant, but even a cursory second-look shows thoughtfulness. An example of that came from Dave Rosenthal over at KAHI radio. He’s been part of the local scene for more than a decade, although recent times and almost inexplicable formats keep him from being the total community asset he once was. When I posed the question to him, the answer was immediate. “What Auburn needs is a Trader Joe’s,” he quickly replied, adding that “it would be nice for (local residents) to have something they want, for a change.” Think of the ramifications of that answer. While most of the responses I got were predictable ones concerning how the city needed more money from one source or another, Rosenthal provided a valuable hint at what type of answer should top the list. In a brief conversation, Rosenthal pointed out how a Trader Joe’s would give the city not only a gravitas it obviously is searching for, but would answer an even better question than the one I posed. Eventually, Cathy Harris of Harris Industrial Gases got down to cases. “Auburn needs cogent thinking on what Auburn needs,” she blurted out as if prepared for the question all along. Interesting answer; almost a conundrum, one which I considered while looking up the word “cogent.” Harris explained that she’s been here “forever” and every time some group or city function gathers to look inward, the city’s main dilemma is never discussed. “The problem we have is nobody has ever asked — or answered — the question of ‘what do we want to be when we grown up,’” she said. She said almost every discussion finds itself on one of two sides, namely “do we want to be a big city or do we want to be the town of Auburn?” Although she didn’t say so, those referenced discussions usually come to the fore whenever a, say, Walmart or other big box store, wants to start doing business in the village. Most opponents or proponents manage to parse their discussions along the way they feel about such happenstances, but the last time I looked, Walmart was selling helium in bulk, so it’s not the threat of competition that keeps Harris on the side of wanting the small community of Auburn, rather than the ever-growing municipality such as what Lincoln was doing prior to this recession. “I’m for the Auburn I grew up in, but I can live here either way. It’s just that we’d better come to a consensus because we waste a lot of resources on discussing this issue constantly,” she said. Although he wasn’t taking sides in the “big vs. little” discussion, Wayne Manning of Manning Coaching & Consulting came up with a specific answer no matter which side the Gentle Reader opts for. “Auburn needs a compelling reason to pull people off of I-80 in both directions,” he said, explaining that geography is what it is in that the city doesn’t have the luxury of expanding through annexation, and that very little of the local vacant land is conducive to large projects. If I understood him properly (an easy thing to do), he was coming up with an updated version of the old economic saw of “mining the miners.” only in this case, the miners are tourists. By luring tourists, which includes residents of the nearby communities, Auburn could provide much needed monies no matter whether it decides to be a haven for big boxes, or decides to remain a bedroom community with its own little markets. Admitting he doesn’t have the specific answer he at least seemed to have to correct questions. “There’s something here that we can use to entice people to stop by,” he said, adding, “I don’t know quite what it is enough to put into words, but all of us feel it. There’s a frame work already here and what we have to do is find the ways to use it.” Manning suggests gathering what he called “a brain trust” from among the village’s various constituencies to come up with ideas of “how to keep people from passing us by,” he said. As my bookie loves to say, he’s 110-percent right. Such a brain trust is just what the city needs no matter what the direction it eventually takes on what it wants to be. Now nobody asked me (they seldom do), but that brain trust needs to be formed ad-hoc, and peopled by citizens with portfolio but without an agenda. I would propose the membership list includes deep thinkers who also have the rare ability to get things done. Too many times I’ve seen committee after committee come up with one bright idea or another, only to have those pearls of wisdom wither because the argument then turned to whose name went on top of the brass dedication plaque. One other caveat: Anybody espousing a need to think outside the box should automatically be barred from serving on the brain trust. We need people who can think within the box because there are certain laws — both man-made and natural — which force an almost saily reality check. Pie-in-the sky may be low-cal, but it also is devoid of nourishment.