Plans made on sunny days, reality in the rain


It was the end-of-school kids’ concert. Our three boys were in the front row, and they waved to us up the bleachers. Each class came up in turn to the front of the makeshift stage to sing their song. By the middle of the show fatigue was setting in. Five hundred kids were fidgeting in their seats. Some of the teachers were yawning; others were daydreaming. The audience worked hard to stay involved, but the applause became more polite as the event went on.

Of course it was raining outside. Even so, I couldn’t wait to get out there. I had a couple of business appointments on hold. And therein lies the dilemma of parenting, I guess. Even though we were bored and our kids were bored, this was one of those scrapbook moments of life—a photo op that, when we look at those pictures years later, we’ll imbue with fond memories.

Looking back, I'd have to say I’ve always been a dreamer. Dreaming up plans has turned out to be what I’ve done for a living. Every new plan starts with a fuzzy vision of what the new idea could be. There are several stages to the process. The first bit is identifying what it is you want to build or achieve. The big question around this is asking yourself (and others) why you want to do it.

That in itself is an interesting question, and too often not addressed by anyone. The citizens of the town of St. Stephen, for example, might ask themselves why they want to give up a very pretty park to put up a three-storey, vinyl-clad, and arguably unattractive commercial residence—when all three of the previous town development managers, including me, have come out against the idea. But perhaps the town really needs the whopping $135,000 from the land sale.

The next part of the planning process follows a predictable but loose process. The next steps are:

1. Information gathering
2. Organizing thoughts
3. Innovating
4. Vetting new ideas
5. Implementing ideas
6. Evaluating results.

Pretty much every creative project involves these basic processes.

The fun stuff happens around organizing thoughts and innovation. Part of organizing thoughts is a professional process. This can often involve engineering studies and social dynamics, such as how a new project is likely to alter the local culture, or its economy.

And then there’s the best bit. Innovation. Here, some lucky dude or dudette (or a small team of them) gets to come up with some wonderful inspiration for the rest of us to enjoy. But at the end of the day the innovators are usually the most frustrated people involved, because it’s impossible to realize any dream in its pure state.

The going begins to get rough around the “vetting new ideas” stage. Consultation is a tricky business. Often people are too conservative to “get” an unusual innovation. And sometimes the idea is good, but nobody likes the person delivering the message, so the good idea gets tossed out, or altered beyond recognition.

Alternatively, the idea may not be so good, but everyone likes the messenger, so a weak concept moves ahead—which is more often the case. An example of this might be the location for the new civic centre in St. Stephen. Good, likeable people are building it downtown. But the downside of this will be periodic traffic congestion, loss of potential small retail space, introducing a giant “big box” piece of architecture into an already compromised downtown context and more. Not to mention the fact that a downtown location also may not be conducive to creating partnerships with other communities and the outlying region.

Vetting new ideas can also be a rigged process. When the two towns in which I grew up were amalgamated into one, there was a public ballot to choose a new name. But the ballot was stacked. Two of the names were virtually the same: “Lakehead” and “The Lakehead.” These were clearly the favourites. But the third choice, “Thunder Bay,” won over the other two, which had cancelled each other out. So some honesty is an essential ingredient.

Where the rubber hits the road is implementation. Getting anything done requires people working together toward a common goal. Being a “comes from away” means outsiders may have a bit of a liability here. Every culture has its peculiarities, and local genealogy plays a much larger role than I would have expected when I arrived here six years ago.

And implementation is the ultimate “rainy day” process. It’s where things go wrong, projects go over budget, people go on strike, etc.

Even old WIlliam Van Horne, the railway builder, ran into these problems. When building the Canadian Sardine Company factory in Chamcook he imported Norwegian and Italian workers, who both raised hell with the locals and went on strike at least twice. The factory construction took longer than expected and went over budget, and never did make a profit after it was built.

So even Van Horne had trouble out here. It’s not an easy place when it rains. But that’s all forgotten when the sun is shining.


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