Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Poisoning the Well ...

Long ago and far away, I was a reporter for a small daily newspaper. I worked the police, crime and courts beat as well as covering local politics and other "hard news." I wrote so much of page one and page two every day that the editor made me quit using my byline because it was embarrassing him. My stuff was regularly "picked up" (reprinted with credit but no pay) by the other papers in the region. And, I would even make the AP every once in a while. From my vantage point as a professional observer, I developed a unique ability to sense the attitude of the community. I like to think that I have not lost that sense.

The current situation with the proposed homeless shelter in the White City neighborhood of Tulsa reminds me greatly of something that happened in that far away little city long ago. One of the wealthier local families decided to make a profit on a piece of their ranch land by selling it to out of state interests for use as a massive toxic waste dump. The land seemed ideally suited for the purpose since it was in a small and more easily handled county that bordered on a larger metropolitan area with a significant need for toxic waste disposal. Local government welcomed the proposal as did the local financial community ... at least at first. But, there were other other considerations as well. The proposed site also bordered on some of the finest farms and ranches in the region. It even bordered on some far out suburban neighborhoods of the larger metropolitan area. And, it could have affected the water table for some of the finest agricultural land in the state.

Despite a massive PR campaign by the landowner, the proposed new owners, local government and the local financial community, opposition to the project just would not go away. There was all of the usual hoopla. Television reporters were everywhere for a while, there were mass rallies and a lot of threats were apparently made by both sides. But then, some of the neighboring ranchers got serious. I talked to some of these folks at the time and I have never seen a madder bunch of cowboys and cowgirls in my life. I don't know if this actually happened, but I heard it from enough separate sources to believe it even if I couldn't print it at the time. I was told that some of the larger bordering ranch owners walked in to the office of the president of a local bank that was supporting the project, threw their house keys on his desk and told him, "If this goes through you can have the whole place, mortgage, stock, equipment, loans and all. We're driving away and not looking back. You can have it." If this had happened, it would have been a disaster for the bank.

Whatever actually happened, the opposition to the project worked and the toxic waste dump was not placed in that county. But, another kind of toxic waste was left. The attempt by previously trusted community leaders to ruin the property values and livelihood of hundreds or even thousands of their neighbors literally poisoned the community well both politically and commercially. Lifelong friendships and commercial associations changed. The preference for dealing with some local institutions disappeared. And, in my estimation, a promising local political career or two ended.

In my opinion, the well has already been poisoned here in Tulsa. The people who attempted to ramrod the proposed White City homeless shelter down the throats of that neighborhood will never regain the complete trust or respect of the White City neighborhood residents. But, if my blog visitor tracking software is accurate, other people in other neighborhoods and even other cities and states are looking on as well. The mistrust and lack of respect may be spreading. The best thing the people supporting this project can do at this point is to kill it and start over somewhere else while they only have one neighborhood in revolt. If they don't, the revolt could spread to the whole city and beyond.


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