Whatever happened to the Congress?

In writing the tagline for a guest columnist this week, we were poised to say, “is a former member of the Winslow Tomorrow Community Congress.”

“Don’t write ‘former’,” our correspondent chastened. “That concedes a point we’re not willing to concede yet.” Seems there’s a minor kerfuffle brewing in City Hall over the future – or perhaps “present” would be more accurate – of the citizen group that drove last year’s downtown planning initiative.

Readers will recall that a congress of island citizens more than 100 strong met and debated throughout 2005, culminating in a watershed convention last October. Among the general recommendations were higher-density zoning downtown, new strategies for parking management, improved pedestrian and bike ways, and other moves that would change the look and feel of our downtown – the goal being a renewed vitality in island commerce and culture alike. The proposals then were handed off to the administration and planning department for codification and eventual consideration by the City Council.

But what happened to the Community Congress?

The question arises as some participants feel the Winlsow Tomorrow effort has slipped out of the public consciousness, for want, they say, of strong and informed citizen advocates to shepherd the recommendations through. A number of players recently met with Mayor Darlene Kordonowy, asking her to sanction continued formal involvement by the Congress’ key members. “We don’t want to keep planning and planning and planning,” Congress veteran Jim Chapel told us this week, saying follow-through is needed. “Sooner or later you have to put a stake in the ground.”

The mayor concedes that it “does seem like Winslow Tomorrow has dropped off the face of the earth,” even as work goes on behind the scenes on specific policies to match the Congress’ recommendations. The mayor said she hopes to “re-engage” Winslow Tommorrow’s chairs and facilitators through regular work with the planning staff and a consultant who will consider strategies ranging from parking to funding.

Whether that will assuage some advocates for more formal citizen participation – irked that so far they’ve been put on a city email list for Winslow Tomorrow announcements, but little else – remains to be seen. A position paper now making the rounds suggests that the whole initiative is at risk if its “institutional memory” – those citizens who hammered out the downtown recommendations in the first place – are sidelined. There’s also a matter of political cover. Specific policy changes for downtown zoning are sure to be controversial when they go before the council, and they’ll carry more cachet if they’re backed by the “organic” clout of citizen activists rather than the administration.

It’s that word – citizen – that’s operative. Winslow Tomorrow was organized by the mayor’s office, but it wouldn’t have happened at all but for the work of downtown property owners and merchants who lobbied City Hall for a long-range planning initiative that wound up engaging the community as a whole.

Citizens drove the effort to this point, and they should have a hand on the wheel until it makes it home.

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