So, I was at Kiwanis today, and club president Matt Ruthven asked me: How come the whole Lakeland mayor forum I moderated Wednesday focused on the homeless in downtown? I looked at him with puzzlement. See, I was there – moderator and all. I remembered asking five questions, with additional follow-ups. And only the first question dealt with the homeless issue in downtown. None of the later audience questions focused on the homeless at all. In total, we probably spent 6 to 8 minutes of a 90-minute forum discussing the homeless. So, perplexed, I went home and read The Ledger story about the forum. Now I understand.
About half of my buddy Rick Rousos’ account, including the lede, focuses on the homeless. I guess that’s what I get for asking that question first. Just to let you in on a secret: I chose to lead off with that subject, which was among several topics recommended by Downtown Lakeland Partnership members, because I didn’t want to start off with a topic I’ve written a lot about – like, say CSX/Sunrail.
I’ll stipulate that it’s hard to write stories that accurately characterize a meeting or forum. I know it firsthand. But I can certainly tell you, for what it’s worth, that Rick far over emphasized the relative importance of the homeless discussion. But that’s life. And no, my wife Julie, the executive director of the DLP, through whose shameless nepotism I ended up as the unpaid moderator, did not put me up to this post. Blame Matt Ruthven.
While I’m at it, let me just say that I’m glad to have a third “outsider” candidate in the race in the form of Elliott Dorsch. It adds a new dynamic. But I’m curious whether his tactic of talking about the crappiness of the city, generally, and the downtown, specifically, will work.
Dorsch told the crowd in the packed Lakeland Police Department Community Room that the homeless problem is “shocking,” hinders downtown’s economy and forces some people to go elsewhere for dining or entertainment.
And Rick adds:
Lakeland has become stagnant and something is missing, he said.
That more or less accurately sums up Dorsch’s take, as I perceived it, emphasizing what’s broke and that old guard folks like opponents Gow Fields and Jim Verplanck can’t fix it because, well, they’re the old guard.
Now I’ve certainly been critical of what I’ve seen as passive city governance in recent years. But that’s not the same as saying the city itself is stagnant. In fact, while Polk County lost population for the first time in forever between April 1, 2008, ad April 1, 2009, Lakeland actually grew by almost 1 percent, The Ledger reported recently. That reasonable growth also bucked the trend statewide and in the I-4 corridor, which saw Orange, Hillsborough, and Pinellas counties all lose significant population.
It’s funny, because Dorsch made a point of saying how much more prosperous Tampa and Orlando are than Lakeland and how there’s no restaurants or things to do here in town. And that’s just silly, as we’ve discussed in this space before.
People vote with their feet and money. If Dorsch is smart, he’ll come down to First Friday tonight and watch people – many of them young professionals – voting with their feet about where to go on a Friday night. He’ll see them spending money at the 10 or more restaurants and at least five decent bars within two blocks of each other in downtown. Most of those restaurants are independent, too, defying the notion that there’s nothing but chains around here. And that doesn’t even count the art house movie theater downtown.
And after visiting First Friday, he ought to ride own to Lakeside Village, where a whole other group of people will be out voting with their feet and spending money at restaurants and the Cobb theater complex. It’s jammed every weekend.
The challenge Lakeland faces, to my mind, isn’t remaking itself. It’s protecting the affordable high quality of life the city has built over the years and finding ways to sustain it. That’s not the same as saying, “Man this city sucks, let’s make it into something.”