To the Editor: Collingswood Residents Seek Solutions-Based Approach to Stadium Renovations

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Two Collingswood readers want to build a coalition to study their school district’s failed outdoor facilities referendum. The district Board of Education hosts a special meeting on the subject April 23.

By Rob Lawrence | April 16, 2018

The Collingswood athletic facilities proposal that was rejected in a spring 2018 vote. Credit: Collingswood Board of Education.

Rhodes Mason and I have been friends for over a decade.

On March 13, I voted for the outdoor enrichment referendum; he voted against it.

Shortly afterwards, we got together and discussed the outcome.

We were struck by two things.

First, how decisive the No vote had been, and second, how unpleasant the public debate leading up to the vote had been.

Then and there, literally over a beer, we agreed to found Alliance for Collingswood Athletic and Play Spaces (ALLCAPS).

Rhodes and I have founded this group for three reasons. We believe that:

  • Collingswood Schools athletic facilities need an upgrade;
  • a smart, economical, and environmentally sound upgrade plan can be crafted; and,
  • if we engage citizens and experts living here in our town, we will be able to craft that
    plan and help pass a successful referendum.

Passing a good plan is the primary and sole purpose of our group; however, we also believe that the group will have the secondary effect of providing a model for respectful, sound, and effective citizen action in our town.

We do not want Collingswood hobbled by the bitter and vindictive style of politics currently practiced at the national level, characterized by partisan disinformation and social-media sniping. We can and will do better.

Residents discuss a proposed stadium project at the Collingswood Board of Education meeting. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

The No vote
The No vote on March 13th was decisive, at an almost 3:1 margin.

The simple act of voting “Yes” or “No” hides a lot of information.

We believe there were many reasons for No votes, from simple opposition to higher taxes, to environmental concerns, to a feeling that the planning process was rushed.

Our first task will be to uncover the meaning of these No votes, through analysis of the vote tallies and a series of town focus groups.

Collingswood is demographically diverse. We have families and individuals from all walks of life, and in all stages of life. The referendum undoubtedly looked different to seniors, parents of school-age children, empty-nesters, new residents, long-term residents, and those of different income levels.

Collingswood is also culturally committed to the idea of diversity. This means that any plan viewed as too partial, too incomplete, or too focused on the interests of one or two demographics will be voted down. Therefore any movement forward must start by acknowledging the reality and decisive nature of the No vote.

A slightly different plan won’t reverse the outcome of a 3:1 vote. We need a dramatically different plan that is engineered to pass, grounded in an understanding of the electorate, its views, and its needs.

Collingswood BOE President Jim Hatzell presents plans for the 2018 district athletic facilities referendum. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Our plan for action
ALLCAPS urges the Board of Education to start by ​setting a date for a new referendum, nine to 12 months in the future.

Setting a date will impose discipline and a timeline, and give ALLCAPS time to structure and execute the following action plan:

1. Convene citizen experts who voted both Yes and No

We believe a successful plan will require the input of professionals from the fields of architecture, construction, law, accounting, grant writing, grounds and facilities maintenance, health and wellness, and environmental sustainability.

Many Collingswood residents are practicing professionals in these fields. We will convene an ALLCAPS team, composed equally of Yes and No voters, who are practitioners in these professions.

2. Incorporate voter input more vigorously

The run-up to the initial referendum included a “World Cafe” event where citizens in attendance were encouraged to provide plan input. This was a good idea that needs to be taken further. We need to consider the views of all likely voters, understand what kind of plan they would vote for, and give them multiple channels for input, including focus groups and surveys.

3. Reassess architecture and planning firms

Many No voters felt the selection of the initial architecture and planning firm was too rushed, or that too few firms were considered. We must avoid a similar perception in round two.

To win public support for the next set of plans, ALLCAPS will offer to help the Board evaluate and select from possible firms. The chosen firm’s plans should clearly and directly incorporate the findings from the voter input process.

We believe the firm chosen should have an experiential, evidence-based design approach and a history of working on public projects with diverse constituents. Working with such a firm will produce a range of plans with better odds of passing.

Collingswood residents discuss the proposed athletic facilities referendum. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

4. Consider alternative funding strategies

Many No voters felt that alternative funding should have been explored more diligently.

State funding, grants, and other forms of assistance could theoretically help defray construction costs.

Even if a search for outside funding is unsuccessful, voters will at least be assured that the alternatives have been exhausted.

5. Address the needs of special constituencies

Two constituencies in particular will be important to passing a referendum. The first group is senior citizens. Seniors who are on fixed incomes and no longer raising children need a strong motive to vote for a plan that may raise their taxes. The upgrade plan needs to provide them with tangible benefit, and appeal to their sense of civic pride.

The second group is citizens with strong environmental views. Many objected to artificial turf, artificial lighting, or both. Speaking as a Yes voter, some of these objections sounded scientific and plausible to me; others sounded anecdotal and unfounded. The only way to sort through these issues is to establish a sound, reliable fact base through expert opinion, that voters can consult and refer to when making future voting decisions.

Collingswood athletics coach Nancy O’Neill. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

In conclusion

We have entered a new, and in some ways difficult, era of participatory democracy.

The Internet, social media, and freely-available information have made it easier for citizens to opine, both accurately and inaccurately, on public questions.

We have to overcome the cycle of shouting and stalemates.

Citizens on both sides of public questions live in the same towns, have many common interests, and, like Rhodes and myself, are often friends. We need to find new and responsible ways of participating in the democratic process together.

If you are interested in the future of Collingswood’s athletic and play facilities, please write me (roblawrence777@gmail.com​) to get involved.

Rob Lawrence is a Collingswood resident and the founder of ALLCAPS, a startup citizen coalition to pass a resident-informed athletic facilities referendum in the borough.

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