5-8 JM Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 14, 2004

The soul of public debate — using any definition you wish — is the ultimate desire to better the public. Right?


Call it cynical if you like, but when people purport to have the “public good” in mind, they usually mean the “partial good.”

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Before I lose you (which tends to happen after such philosophical beginnings), let’s put the above notion in perspective. Better yet, let’s put the opinion in exacting context.

The city of Demopolis and her leaders have long discussed the idea of developing the riverfront area. Back in the early 1970s, The Demopolis Times wrote an editorial when a wall was constructed along the riverbanks.

“Those who decided to build [the wall] knew it would offend some and please others,” the editorial read. “Those that are pleased, we think, far outnumber those who are unhappy with the result.”

Around the same time, Harold Britton — then president of the Marengo County Historical Society — penned a resolution from his organization prompting city officials to further develop the riverfront.

“[It is] urged and requested to take immediate steps toward the opening of Arch Street along the river beginning at Monroe Street and running southwardly and westwardly along the Tombigbee River, as shown on the original town map,” the resolution said.

Even in the past few years, citizen and improvement committees have issued opinions about the development of the riverfront area. Whether or not citizens recently gave open endorsements of the concept really depends on whom you ask.

If you’ve kept up with the current events of Demopolis, you know this Arch Street project has seared the eyebrows of most involved.

In case you haven’t followed, the city of Demopolis recently was awarded a $400,000 grant to create a walking trail along the river. That trail, in essence, would be Arch Street with park benches, shrubbery and acorn-shaped lights coaxing walkers to take another step. That trail also would run behind the quaint homes of numerous property owners.

What’s so controversial about a lazy trail that might spur development along the river? Better yet, what’s so wrong with city officials going after a $400,000 grant and actually winning it?

I believe the city did nothing wrong in asking for, and getting, the Arch Street grant. I also believe the city — on a rare occasion — failed the public relations test.

If you know anything about the arguments against the Arch Street project, they come from three corners of “society.”

First, property owners don’t care a thing for the concept of having stragglers roaming through their yards. They also have questions about the city’s upkeep of such a trail after the botanical gardens apparently withered to near-extinction.

Second, the historical groups apparently oppose the idea because the grant calls for the wrong kind of concrete to be used on the trail.

Finally, the beautification committee opposes the walking trail because the wrong kind of top-soil will be used to plant the shrubbery. OK, I’m kidding about that one.

Actually, the beautification committee was listed as an endorsing group for the project when city officials wrote the grant. Turns out they never formally gave any sort of endorsement. The same can be said for the property owners and historical groups in town. They weren’t consulted before the city submitted the grant.

I don’t think there’s a city employee who would disagree. They made a mistake in terms of communication, and now they’re trying to dig out of a PR nightmare. At the same time, city officials believe that once they get through this bad dream, the entire city will benefit from expanded development along the river.

If Vegas came to town, I’d put my money on the grant being rescinded. There’s a chance city officials will agree to stop the walking trail before it encroaches on angry property owners, but the Alabama Department of Transportation might well cut most of the grant if that happens.

Here’s the sad part: Demopolis stands to lose an incredibly progressive project. Go visit Montgomery and ask them what riverfront development has done for the city.

Forfeiting progress is bad enough. What’s unfortunate, however, is the way this deal will die.

The people fighting against Arch Street — whether they’re property owners, historical folks or those concerned with the town’s beautification — aren’t really concerned with the “greater good” of Demopolis. That’s not to be taken in a negative light, because they aren’t necessarily fighting the progress of Demopolis, either.

At the heart of this debate lies one gruesome reality when public and private groups bump heads: You must communicate, and you must do it well.

The arguments against the Arch Street project aren’t directed at the project, itself. Instead, the arguments are a result of citizens who, for better or worse, have an ego in this fight. People like to be consulted when they’re affected by a decision, and you can’t really blame them.

Then again, who will we blame when our most precious resource — the riverfront — remains grossly underdeveloped?