Lessons from the Rose Fellowship: Marilyn Strickland

 In All News, Program Reflections

The ULI Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership spoke with Mayor Marilyn Strickland of Tacoma, Wash., a 2012-2013 Daniel Rose Fellow, about the impact of the year-long fellowship program upon her city.

Rose Center: Each year, the Daniel Rose Fellowship works to tackle a particular land use challenge in teach of its fellowship cities. What was Tacoma’s experience like?

Strickland: Being selected for the Rose Fellowship raises the profile of a city — something that’s especially important to a mid-sized city like Tacoma. First, you get a lot of press. Members of the community get very interested and so the press pays close attention.

In particular, in Tacoma we had been talking about the Hilltop neighborhood for, probably, years; it’s a neighborhood that’s experienced what I call “fits and starts.” We’ve already had a shelf full of plans [for the neighborhood] but I told the the other fellows, and the faculty advisers: I didn’t just want another plan to sit on a shelf. I wanted this to be about action — actual items that we can implement.

During the fellowship year we agreed with the regional transit authority to expand light rail to the Hilltop neighborhood; we had an anonymous donor donate $150,000 to plant trees in the neighborhood. We’ve had small businesses opening, and a developer has purchased a historic property to put in market rate housing. We’ve opened a regional health care center. The fellowship helped us to take a holistic look at the neighborhood, to ask ourselves, “How can this neighborhood thrive in the near future?”

If there was one word I could use to describe how the Hilltop neighborhood benefited from the Rose Center, it would be, “momentum.”

What did you learn during your year as a Daniel Rose Fellow?

When you’re an elected official, especially a mayor, there is nothing more contentious than land use. No matter what issue you’re working on, land use is highly controversial regardless of the context. From my perspective, I found that the fellowship improves [a mayor’s] knowledge about land use and the issues that we’re all going to face.

One of the things that you get to learn about being a mayor is that whatever issue you have, whatever problem you are trying to solve — another mayor, somewhere, has been through it before. Or they are experiencing the same thing right now. It’s good to be able to interact to your peers. One great value that the Rose Fellowship brings is the ability to interact with colleagues from around the country.

Being a Rose Fellow, in my opinion, is prestigious. It’s an honor to be selected, to have access to these types of resources. I don’t know if I could put a dollar value on the type of assistance we received but if we could somehow count it up, it would be very valuable.

A Rose Fellow gets access to experts who understand land use, architecture, infrastructure, and how people interact with the place where they live. The fellowship sets the stage for attracting private investment, raising the profile of the city as a whole and the study area in particular.

Your list of recent successes in the Hilltop neighborhood is impressive. What are some of the challenges you’ve had to address?

One issue that often comes up in renovating a historic neighborhood is gentrification. In the last two years we’ve been very deliberate to reach out to as many different groups of people as possible. Hilltop is a very diverse neighborhood — age, background, income level, education level — and we want to make sure it will always be able to maintain its diversity and spirit of inclusion.

The concept of gentrification has a lot of meaning, depending on who you are. A large influx of wealth is not what’s happening on Hilltop. We’re just trying to make the place as livable as possible for everyone. Given the cycles of the economy over decades it went from being a thriving business district to a district that was struggling. So now, from a certain point of view, just coming back to market-rate is gentrification.

On a more personal level, has your fellowship year changed your relationship with your city?

I think it has, in two ways.

Speaking as a resident of Tacoma, I found that the program gave me a sense of great pride in my city. Sometimes, when you live in a city, and you get caught up in the daily grind of going to work and doing what you do, you lose appreciation for what a great community you have.

Furthermore, it’s nice to have people from around the country come in with very objective eyes and give you a very honest assessment of your city, both the good and the bad. The experience gives you a newfound appreciation for what assets you really do have, and inspiration for how to maximize them, make them work for the people you represent.

The experts did not come in here and turn everything upside down. They were very good about pointing out: these are assets, these are strengths. But they also pointed out where we were under-performing, and helped identify places for opportunity.

At the 2013 ULI Fall Meeting in Chicago, you addressed the audience at the Mayor’s Forum on Public-Private Partnerships and City Building and shared your thoughts on public and private-sector cooperation. Your own career began in the corporate world. What were some of the formative experiences that helped you to develop your views?

Not everyone [in an elected office] has a career plan to go into public service. Many of us arrived where we are by way of a different path.

For me, having worked in the private sector for both a small business and a large corporation, I developed a strong understanding of the challenges that businesses must overcome in order to thrive. But you also have to understand that there’s an interesting relationship between business and government. One of the things that I’ve learned working for government is that government is never the enemy here; government is not trying to hurt business. Our job is to try to help people. Sometimes, though, public and private demands can conflict.

Elected officials need to understand that any partnership has to be mutually beneficial.

Unfortunately, you increasingly see states being pitted against each other, cities being pitted against each other, just competing to throw tax breaks at corporations, and it becomes this race to the bottom, where you have to give everything away to justify your existence. It shouldn’t be that way.

At some point we have to say: Look, as a city, we have a lot to offer. A trained workforce, great public amenities, a good place to locate. There’s great value in that.

This interview was conducted by Timothy Boscarino of Issue Media Group.

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