Let's increase the ROI on Inter-city Visits

I've long been skeptical of the bi-annual Inter-city Visits organized by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, err sorry, that's actually the Chamber-owned Partnership for a Sustainable Community. The intention to visit a community and learn from their successess and failures is a good one. But the reality of an expensive trip with the wealthy and powerful of Chapel Hill - where the learning stops when the return flight touches down at RDU - is a little different.

Four years ago, I put my (and your) money where my mouth is and went on the trip to Ann Arrbor, MI. I got a scholarship of about $700 from the Chamber, raised about $200 from OP readers, and pitched in over $200 of my own money as well as 2 vacation days from work to make it possible. I enjoyed the trip somewhat (being in the first trimester of my pregnancy didn't help), learned a bit from the organized panels and tours, and met some nice people (a lot of real estate agents and UNC administrators). Then it was over. There was no significant effort to encapsulate the learnings for people back home, not much documentation of the trip, and no follow-up opprtunity to process the information we had all digested in different ways.

I understand the Inter-city Visit went to Asheville in 2010, partially as a way to defray the cost of flying a small conference across the country. With a one-year-old child I wasn't able to attend, and in addition I never could have afforded the expense even with the lower travel costs. This year, Bloomington, IN is the city of choice and once again the Chamber has been saying things like "Diverse leaders from across our community, including local business owners and managers, elected officials, university leaders, non-profit leaders, municipal and county staff, and community members, will participate in the 2012 Inter-City Visit. All members of our community are welcome and encouraged to participate."

Let's tell the truth. The cost of the trip ranges from $1,195 to $1,495, with limited scholarships available covering up to about $700.  This seems like little more than a junket for well-connected and affluent members of the community who stand to benefit from access to our elected and appointed government officials. It may be educational, but it's still a junket and does very little to serve the rest of the community that can't afford to (or doesn't want to) participate in the trip. Kristen Smith is the Chamber staffer that coordinates the trip, and last month she thoughtfully invited me to coffee to discuss my criticisms.  

We had a very positive conversation, and it resulted in a whole list of ways the Inter-City Visit could serve more of the community than the priviledged particpants. Some of our ideas included streaming some of the panels on the web, having designated bloggers to document in real time (and bring back ideas from virtual participants), and establishing a committee of travellers and non-travellers to think about how to connect more people to the educational aspects of the trip and bring more of the learning home to benefit all of us. I haven't seen any steps toward implementing those ideas, but perhaps some good will come of it.

Are any of you going? If so, what do you hope to get out of the trip? 

(ROI stands for return on investment.)



I had never thought much about going on the Inter-City visit, thinking it was for others, those who do business directly with the towns or work for them. But within the last few years, because I really love living here, I have started to think more about how the towns work and how people are engaged in shaping them. I am sure the Chapel Hill 2020 process had something to do with my new interest. So, when a few people I really respect started talking about going on the Inter-City visit and what they wanted to learn, it piqued my interest as something I might want to attend. I talked about it with my fellow Justice United strategy team members and I also talked about it with the other Orange Politics editors. After meeting with the Chamber Director of Public Policy and Member Engagement (Kristen Smith) about how she would connect me with folks in Bloomington who are doing similar community engaged work, I decided to register and apply for a scholarship, which I received. I am excited to go learn and to also bring back what I learn to share with our Justice United members and others. I told Kristen that I would live tweet while on the visit and I may also blog on this site. I encourage others to as well and to ask questions of those of us attending.These are the things I look forward to learning about:

  • How Bloomington does affordable housing, any partnerships, any innovative tools to keep housing affordable for a wide range of residents,
  • If there are community groups working on social change and how they go about their work,
  • How the town harnesses University talent (faculty, staff, and students) to solve problems and innovate,
  • How Bloomington does public transit – is there Light Rail, is there Bus Rapid Transit,
  • What tools does the City use to engage it’s residents in planning efforts.

What would you want to learn?

I'm so glad to hear you will be going, Molly! (I didn't know when I wrote this post.)I'm interested in all the questions you raised above, especially how the town government works with the community. Do they have neighborhood councils, if so, what role do they play. What other offline or online venues do residents have for meaningful dialogue and policy input? 

I'm excited to hear that you'll be attending, Molly! Like Ruby, I'm also interested in a number of the topics you've mentioned above, though I would also like to hear about how Bloomington's development process works, and what kinds of developments the town is seeing (is there a focus on transit-oriented development? Is it mostly student housing? Any projects like Greenbrdige or 140 West? What are the community attitudes towards different kinds of development?). Discussion over Chapel Hill's SUP process and outlook on development has been central to our community for some time, so having some outside perspective on how other towns handle development would be incredibly beneificial, I think.Also, I'd be interested to know a bit more about Bloomington's transportation system and general town layout. In my opinion, many of Chapel Hill's transportation problems stem from our lack of a grid layout -- curious to know if Bloomington was more planned or not and how that affects their public transit systems and parking. 

According to Pro Publica's data, Bloomington's income inequality (Monroe County) is almost as bad as Orange County, NC's, which means they are probably failing in the same ways we are. (For those not familiar with the numbers, Orange County's income inequality approaches that of Manhattan and the hedge fund manager haven of Greenwich, CT)Perhaps both places should look to a locale with more income inequality, like, say, San Francisco? Just kidding.  The city of SF does, staggeringly, have a more equitable income distribution than Orange County or Monroe County, but not by much. Madison, WI, Ann Arbor, MI, and Asheville (all recent intercity visits) are handling affordable housing much more effectively than Orange County/Chapel Hill/Carrboro/Hillsborough or Bloomington/Monroe and likely offer better solutions, of which permitting more housing units is probably a key variable.Conduct your own research here:http://www.propublica.org/article/income-inequality-near-you  

Glad Molly is going.  The  community benefits when more people participate and bring different perspectives and eyes on this trip.  Obviously our Chamber thinks so too and that's why we make funds available to help people take the trip.    I have learned a lot from attending previous trips.   Sorry I can't go this year, but next time........

I'm going on an ICV for the first time. And I've got no problem calling it a junket. It is what it is. No one expects the Chamber of Commerce to sponsor a trip for artists and activists, but we can expect that they be included and they are. I'm going primarily because I'm interested in how involved the Bloomington Chamber is in their local public schools. I'm especially interested in this joint initiative to place graduation coaches in their local high schools. Overall, it seem slike their Chamber does a lot of what our Public School Foundation does. In other ways, their Franklin Initiatve [PDF] has opprotunities for community-school partnerships that we haven't explored. I hadn't even considered going until Kristen pointed this Chamber-schools partnership in Bloomington out to me. Now I'm excited because I think I might really be able to learn about something that we could implement locally to help a lot of people. So that's where I see them most direct potential ROI.That said, I'm in favor of junkets that work well to connect people. It's valuable sometimes just to have an extended opportunity to be with people that you usually see for only an hour every once in a while. A few years back the Chamber had a trip to China. Two mentors from Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate went on the trip. When they got back, they had recruited several more people to be mentors in our program. None of them went on the trip for that purpose, but their chance to network sure paid dividends for the kids who are being mentored by those new recruits.

After reading several post about the 2012 Inter-City visit and with a few minutes to spare, I looked into how citizens report incidences of grafitti.I lived in Bloomington since 1978 before moving to Chapel Hill in 1991. Over the years, I've made several trips to Bloomington to visit family.  With time, I've noticed an increase in graffiti that simply could not be found in the 80's through the mid 90's. So my interest peaked and with a few minutes this Sunday afternoon, looked into the differences as to how Bloomington and Chapel Hill report their graffiti activities.  At the moment, I favor Bloomington's means for reporting graffiti securely online. For Chapel Hill, simply pick-up the phone and dial 911. Sources:Chapel Hill:http://www.ci.chapel-hill.nc.us/index.aspx?page=1237Bloomington:https://bloomington.in.gov/report-graffiti 

I have an aversion to calling 911 unless it's an actual emergency; I don't want people having a heart attack to be even potentially delayed by my report of a scribbling on a wall. I'd also prefer some sort of online reporting method or even a different phone number to call. Sounds like something a voice mail system could handle nicely.

I'm glad Carl has brought this up - it is one of the tricky local government issues that rides the line between public/private responsibility.   I'd broaden Carl's question to:  how is it reported AND what is the protocol that local government uses to take care of the problem?  What if the graffitti is on public property, University property, Duke Energy equipment (often the case)?  I don't know the answer to how we (town and/or University) handle it now but it's information that would be valuable for residents to have so they can be empowered to report the graffitti. 

If an officer needs to be dispatched, you are supposed to call 911, even if it isn't an emergency. If you call CHPD with a request for an officer, they'll tell you to hang up and call 911. That's how their system works, even though I sometimes doubt its efficiency. I used to have to call a lot for work. It was rarely for an emergency, but it all had to go through 911.

I wouldn't have thought that graffiti was something that needed an officer to be dispatched. I suppose it's technically a crime, but still. If I see a big hole in the sidewalk, I wouldn't call the police; I'd think of graffiti in the same way. Anyhow, thanks for the info Erin. 

If you want to file a police report, you start with 911.  When I call 911 about non-emergency items, I always start by telling the person who answers, "This is not an emergency."  If they are busy, they'll put you on hold.


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