Leave It Better Than You Found It

Last week held a seminal moment for me: my very first town hall meeting. Funnily enough, it wasn’t anywhere near my hometown. It was held at a municipal building at Rancho & Bonanza, where a discussion took place on how to balance public and private funding for the proposed Downtown Las Vegas Major League Soccer stadium –or whether to scrap the idea altogether.

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September 25, 2014 – Ward 3 Town Hall on Proposed Downtown Stadium. Image Source: Justin McAffee.

This debate on how to allocate funds to reflect a community’s values struck me in two ways. The first was that it contradicted the usual cynicism and resignation at the futility of politics, and instead demonstrated a wide belief in the power of one person to change things for the better.

The second was that it brought forth memories of my formative years and how they were impacted by the arrival of new large-scale sporting venues near my hometown.

I grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb on the D.C. border. I was raised as a Baltimore Orioles fan. My childhood hero was Cal Ripken, who was always the first at the ballpark and the last to leave–so although as a 10-year old it was well past my bedtime, my dad indulged my wish to stay after a night game in the parking lot of the venerable but decrepit Memorial Stadium till 1am waiting for Cal to emerge from the locker room and devote an hour to sit in his car signing autographs. This is one of the best memories of my life.

In 1992, I saw first-hand how the building of Oriole Park at Camden Yards at the Inner Harbor salvaged that crumbling Rust Belt city from implosion. Although at the time I had no concept of stadium financing and thought a government could build anything it conceived, I later learned that the financing for Camden Yards indeed came from state coffers.

Later on as a young adult, I witnessed the 1997 unveiling of the MCI Center in the heart of Washington, DC. In the ensuing years (while MCI folded amidst the Worldcom scandal and the arena was renamed the Verizon Center), I noticed the rapid ripple effect of positive changes in the District, and how the late Abe Pollin has long since been duly and universally recognized as a visionary.

The Verizon Center model is now the model case study of how building an arena in the heart of a city can reverse the 1970s suburban flight mistake. And now, residents of far-flung areas of Maryland and Virginia regularly converge there via public transportation to watch sports and concerts. Everybody won.

What I am writing here is not so much a persuasive op-ed for the Downtown stadium, but an admiration for the thoughtful consideration of a community that wants to best allocate its resources toward the betterment of future generations. I was moved seeing youths at the town hall meeting, from high school soccer clubs to the 10-year olds coached by their dads. I suspect those dads want to bequeath similar memories to their kids.

While the opposition to the proposal was audible, it was still minuscule compared to the optimism and positivity in the room, joined by the belief that individual voices would be collectively heard to sway the community toward a widely beneficial endeavor – that by simply showing up and favoring the long-view over the short-term fiscal pinch, they could leave their piece of the world better than they found it.