On Thursday I repeatedly called a telephone number for one of the city pools hoping to talk to a live human being. But I kept getting a recorded message that said – and I am not making this up: Do not leave a voice mail. Voice mail is not checked.
Listen, even if I were Dali’s Average Bureaucrat I’d have to think long and hard to come up with a better “Shut up and leave us alone” message than that.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my city and I often rise to the defense of our local government. But these are trying times, and in a crisis message matters more than ever if you want to maintain public confidence. Perhaps city officials have been too busy dealing with the coronavirus to worry overly much about message. But the longest running, and truest, complaint I’ve ever heard about city hall is that the people in charge there don’t know how to tell Gainesville’s story. And of late Gainesville’s optics have been terrible.
Case in point: The other day I saw a grinning photo of Commissioner Harvey Ward on Facebook. He was standing in front of Bo Diddley Plaza showing off its new social distancing markings. “Did not know it was possible to love this community plaza more,” he said.
So I rode my bike downtown and, sure enough, those new community distancing boxes, made out to resemble Bo’s celebrated square guitars, are very cool.
You can see them clearly, even standing behind the yellow-caution tape that is supposed to keep the public away from their cool new social distancing boxes.
You can even admire them from the other side of the blue Park/Facility Closure” signs.
So what is the message: Gainesville practices social distancing, but just not here? Then why bother to create the boxes?
Case in point: If there’s anything that people need after weeks of lockdown is open green space in which to walk, run, sun and stroll – all while observing safe social distancing protocol of course. One block away from the taped off BD Plaza is Sweetwater Branch Park. It is downtown’s park. It is the city’s B&B District park. It is three blocks of creek and cool green space in the middle of a concrete and asphalt city center.
It is also neglected, litter-strewn, weed-choked hobo jungle that few people care to set foot on. City Manger Lee Feldman once told me that workers were using the lockdown to take care of a lot of overdue maintenance downtown. Apparently Sweetwater Branch Park wasn’t on the list. Last week a group of civic minded volunteers went out and cleaned up the park because, apparently, the city can’t be bothered.
What is the message there?
Case in point: Attempts to keep skateboarders out of the Possum Creek skate park were not working, so the city dumped loads of mulch on the ramps to stop skaters in their, um, tracks. Instead they created instant media celebrities out of the skaters, parents and others who went to work shoveling the mulch out of the way. This while bemused police looked on.
Case in point: The city announced it would block off three sections of downtown streets so restaurants could feature open air dining and thus avoid the limits placed on indoor seating. After several restaurants objected the city ended up closing just a narrow slice of SW 2nd Avenue. And then proceeded to block it off with concrete monstrosities that look like nothing so much as an urban tank trap.
Good intentions, bad optics.
I could go on. Certainly the loss of the long-running Union Street Farmer’s Market to Celebration Point won city government no accolades. That market used to take place on Bo Diddley Plaza. What if city officials had, instead of closing the plaza, established and enforced thoughtful social distancing protocols that might have allowed the open-air market to continue in place? Imagine people actually being able to use those social distancing boxes in the plaza.
Feldman is still new to Gainesville, having arrived just before things went to hell. He likes to call city residents neighbors and city employees community builders. But I would argue that the employees who recorded that “drop dead” parks and rec message, put social distancing boxes behind no trespassing tape, let downtown’s public park go to seed, thought mulch was the answer to enforcing a public health measure, turned a downtown street into Checkpoint Charlie and said so long to the farmer’s market were not engaging in community building in any sense of the phrase.
Message matters, Gainesville. If I were Feldman I’d borrow Mark Sexton from the county and let him give Messaging 101 lessons to Gainesville’s community builders. If you can’t tell the city’s story convincingly, people are going to draw their own conclusions.