Archive for the 'Lessons learned' Category

Dec 13 2009

The reward of Giving goes to the Giver!

Published by under Lessons learned

After losing my campaign for Ann Arbor City Council in 2008 (by a landslide) I started looking around for other ways that I could become more involved in my community.   In addition to joining Ann Arbor Rotary and working with three local non-profit organizations that I deeply admire, I have been volunteering at Ann Arbor SPARK, SPARK East and the New Enterprise Forum, NEF,  and GLEQ to work with local entrepreneurs that have promising business ideas that potentially could help breathe some life into our tired local economy.

As a volunteer coach for the Annual Collaboration for Entrepreneurs, ACE-10, Business Plan Competition,  the luck of the draw brought an interesting idea for a new Not-For-Profit organization that resonated with me almost immediately. (See Youth of Tomorrow at YOFT.org)

Most business plans that come across my desk these days are from energetic young professionals looking to make a killing promoting the “Next New Thing” against all odds.  To my surprise I was sent an extremely well thought out Executive Summary written by a 25-year old engineering student, Marc Alexander, from Kettering University in Flint, MI.  Further research on the author revealed a truly amazing story of a young man that some how managed to make the best of a seemingly “bad hand” life dealt to him.  A great example of, “if life gives you lemons…make lemonade!”  When most others would simply make excuses for why they can’t get ahead in life this young man with an infectious smile, a sparkle in his eye and and “almost naive”, radiates an indomitable will to persevere and achieve his personal goals.  How could I not get involved?

Remarkably his personal goals are not based on based on monetary and personal gain but on his desire and passion to help others achieve their goals– indeed a young Bodhisattva!  His inspiration has opened my eyes and helped me formulate some thoughts on economic development in Ann Arbor, SE Michigan, Michigan, the Mid-West, U.S. and the the World.

The recent international financial  meltdown and the Global Warming Conference should vividly remind us of how interconnected the world has become.  They should serve as a stark lesson to us on the value of economic cooperation.   Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” has been replaced by Lucas Film’s “may the ‘Force’ be with you”.  Our “Force” is the will and spirit of ALL residents of our great State.

The entire state of Michigan is looking to Ann Arbor to become the technological engine that will help push the State out of the economic depression we are mired in.  As we all work hard to help jump start our local economy we need to look at the bigger picture and  let Marc Alexander remind us what good does it do to “get rich” if we leave everyone else behind?  How can sustainable economic development take place in Ann Arbor and leave Ypsilanti behind?  How can SE Michigan and Michigan have lasting prosperity while Detroit still has burned out homes, factories, bankrupt schools and 30% unemployment? You get the idea!  Sustainable success cannot be achieved by a  “beggar thy neighbor” attitude on any geographic scale.  If we sacrifice this core value we do so at our own peril.  Thanks Marc!  I have already received a precious gift from you.

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Nov 27 2009

Democracy

Published by under Lessons learned,Politics

I listened carefully to NPR Commentator, award winning journalist and educator–Jack Lessenberry’s speech to my Rotary Club on Wednesday.   With witty and sometimes snarky language,  Mr. Lessenbery lamented the demise of the print editions in the Newspaper Industry and the lack of substance for the online “free” versions of our local papers.  One of his main theories is that politicians everywhere are the only people celebrating this trend.  Jack stated that the First Amendment, Freedom of Speech, is the main guardian of  good government.  I could not agree more.   Government is only as good as what we as citizens are willing to accept.  Without the press shining their cleansing light in every nook and cranny of the governmental process it is impossible for the ordinary citizen to keep up with every day workings of our government.  A strong newspaper is a fundamental requisite for an ethical government.

As I sat through the speech I became more and more convinced that the Ann Arbor Chronicle must succeed.  It needs our monetary support and courteous involvement in the dialogue.   The unbiased reporting of the governmental meetings that Mary Morgan and her husband Dave provide the transparency that we must demand of our elected officials.  As an unbiased historical record of each of these meetings they attend is made available to us it  gives us all an opportunity to lend our voices and opinions to the processes that may ultimately affect our lives more than State and National issue.   Read the Ann Arbor Chronicle, subscribe and then let your voice be heard or forever hold your tongue!

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Mar 08 2009

Good People or Good Equipment?

My 21 years in the the Air Force taught me that “Good People” make up for “Bad Equipment” everyday.  The advantage one achieves by having the best of equipment is always fleeting if you don’t have the best people using it, so given the choice I will always choose the best people and try to hang onto them.   

The Russians are a great example of good people making up for bad equipment.  During the cold war the Russians faced chronic shortages of every strategic material and computer available to us Westerners yet they continued to bluff us into thinking they were a superpower for 40 years.  They did it with their intellect and hard work.  Take a look at vintage 1980 Soviet aircraft.  Lacking sophisticated computers and wind tunnels  for advanced aerodynaminc modelling, the Russians just became very good at copying our basic designs and adapting them to their needs.  The results were nothing less than outstanding.  Couple adequate design and outstanding pilots and the results were a talented air force that was the envy of the world.

So if you ask me whether I would rather have a new city hall or a good police force and I am sure you will know what my answer will be.  Don’t get me wrong, we need an adequate place for our policemen and women to call home and then we need to invest in their training to insure that they are ready to protect us.  Remember, our young men and women don’t gravitate to law enforcement for the money!  They do it because of their desire to serve.  Let’s keep the best and the brightest and make our investments in “them” not the building.  We will all be safer if we do. 

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Aug 08 2008

08/08/08 Good Luck to all

Published by under Lessons learned

I attended City Council  last night.  I relished seeing the expression on the surprised council majority as I walked up to the podium to weigh in on the 25-story building now referred to as 601 South Forest.   I am sure The Council Clique thought I would be off “licking my wounds” from the election results that now just seem like a bad dream.

There was a public commentary period on a proposed project that will dominate the landscape for the next 50 years at the corner of South University and Forest Ave if allowed to proceed as planned.  As I spent more time canvassing the residents of Ward 2 during the past several months than anyone in the City, I felt obligated to report on behalf of the residents of our ward what I felt their sentiment is concerning this controversial project.  Some of the residents I spoke with were at the meeting and so I am glad that I took the time to attend.

Most Ward 2 residents feel that 25 stories is out of character and scale with the central campus business district.  I did not meet one person that felt that no development should go in on the site.  Residents that remember South University from “The Glory Days” recalled a vibrant shopping district with campus classics such as Mary Dibble’s, Redwood and Ross, Wikel’s Pharmacy and the Village Bell.   Those days are a sad contrast to the current condition of the area filled with seedy bars, fast food restaurants and vacant buildings.  To the merchants and owners of the area, the new project represents a false hope to return us to the “Happy Days” scripts.  This dichotomy will eventually lead to clash between residents and business that erroneously perceive us to be anti-development.  It is not that simple.

All stakeholders have a right to an opinion of what our great city will look like.  One stakeholder’s opinion is not less important than any other in  this  process.   The role of City government is to help us all achieve a consensus of how we want to grow and codify that consensus so that the process is fair and consistent to all stakeholders.  That goal has not been achieved.   Our City Planners like to think that it has been, but it is clear to me that most people with opinions do not feel they have been heard from…..and I can assure you they will be heard.

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Jul 24 2008

Strong “Un” Endorsement

Published by under Lessons learned

STRONG   “UN” endorsement !

Some of you will have already seen the AA News endorsement of my opponent in the Editorial Section of the AA News today.  Aside from a poor choice of words, I think that the Editorial staff did a pretty good job of assessing what I stand for but came to the wrong conclusion on who can best represent our Ward.  

Let’s look at what they said about my campaign sentence by sentence. 

I am campaigning hard!  When you are not strongly supported by the Mayor and other Party Politicos to run for a vacant council seat , that is the only way to get elected.

I have done my homework! That is obvious to anyone that has spoken with me or listened to my neighborhood salons.  What else would you expect from your councilman? In fact that is how I have conducted my entire educational and professional career.  That is what got me into the Business School Honor Society and kept me and my passengers alive for 30 years. 

I have a charming blog.  Thanks, please visit it at www.svnelson.com .  Their choice of the word “charming” seems to imply that clear, consistent communication is a quaint idea!!  I believe it is essential to good government, and I will not back down from this belief.  You will always know where I stand.

Sharply critical of City Administrator Roger Fraser and Mayor Hieftje.   I agree I have had some rather well publicized disputes with both the Mayor and the City Administrator.   Do you want our council representatives to just be a “rubber stamp”?  What is the definition of “Group Think”?  Dissention and disagreement are part of the democratic process.  Where would we be as nation if we never challenged the status quo?  Think Boston Tea Party.

Doesn’t agree with council majority.  So true!  Ask departing councilman Ron Suarez about disagreeing with the council majority.   Ask the council minority, Mike Anglin, Steve Kunselman and Sabra Briere about being excluded from important discussions on the Labor & Finance Committee on the Tios land acquisition.   Ask Mary Campbell of Everyday Cook in Kerrytown what happens when you are on the wrong side of the council majority and you need a liquor license to keep your doors open.   My personal feeling is that there should not be a council majority or minority if you only have one party running the City.

I would come into the job with a “chip” on my shoulder.   I think they hit the wrong body part here!  I would come into council with a concern in my heart.   My energy and passion may come across as a chip but when my main motivation is to do what is best for the City I love; I guess it is OK if the council majority calls it a “chip”.  That is a mantle I am more than willing to shoulder. 

My Strong  “Un” endorsement by ther AA News will only make me work harder to get elected because it confirms that I am on the correct path! 

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Jul 11 2008

Arts Alliance

Published by under Lessons learned

I recently received a questionnaire for local government candidates from the Arts  Alliance.  This organization is managed by a very impressive Director, Ms. Tamara Real. Tamara is ably assisted by a small staff and “hundreds” of community volunteers.   The Alliance shares an office with the Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce.  It is ironic that the Alliance poses a question about the benefit of public art.  Just ask any Chamber staff member how they feel about sharing an “art filled” office with the Alliance.

The Alliance posed these questions to all candidates running for office in Washtenaw County.  I thought you might benefit from reading my responses.

Art Alliance Candidate Questions:

1.     What is your position on public funding for arts and culture? The city of Ann Arbor has recently adopted a 1.0% rule to fund public art which means that 1.0% of capital building projects must be spent on public art.  One of the first expenditures was on a series of whimsical sculptures that were the work of a promising University of Michigan art student,  Elshafei Mohamed.   Brightly colored and playful, these statues are based on Mr. Mohamed’s experiences with the Umbororo nomads of the Sudan. The “Herd” magically appeared in front of the Larcom Municipal building one April afternoon.  We can only surmise the influence this display and the feedback will have on this young artist’s career.  I did get a hint however as I watched the smile on his face as wide as the Sahara as he received recognition of council. I am totally committed to maintaining funding to at least this level from the City because it has been demonstrated in many cities around the U.S. that a sustained commitment to public art contributes greatly to the “Livability” of a city, and according to the American Institutes of Architects, AIA,  “Livability” is one the key components of Sustainability—our  21st Century Zeitgeist.   

2. If elected, what measurable actions will you take to ensure that arts and cultural offerings survive and thrive in Washtenaw County? Please be specific.

1.      Ensure that funding (~$200,000 County wide) is available for an accurate census every 3 to 5 years to ascertain progress on key metric such as number of artists, art teachers, art galleries, art related businesses number of public art pieces commissioned, etc.

2.      Track annually the number of public art pieces commissioned by the City.  Set a goal then measure again the next year.

3.      Track annually the dollar amount of the City contribution to the performing arts.  Set a goal then measure again the next year. 

4.      Keep the Summer Festival alive!  It may need more money next year from public-private partnerships. 

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Jun 22 2008

“Sustainable” Sustainability

Published by under Lessons learned

If you “Google” the word “sustainability,” 33,000,000 links appear. It seems almost every government, academic and business institution has their pet definition or spin of the new paradigm of our “Code of Conduct” for global development.

The World Commission on Environment and Development, WECD, defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

That sounds sensible but how do we accomplish these honorable goals? According to a standard text on the topic, Urban Planning (Fifth Edition), sustainability requires four factors.

  • Ecology. This is the typical dimension that most people associate with sustainability. How is what we are trying to accomplish going to affect our environment?
  • Equity. How will we distribute our limited resources and opportunity in a manner that is equitable and consistent with our broader social goals?
  • Livability. How should we design the public spaces in our community to best utilize our streets and buildings to facilitate the numerous activities we go about doing in the course of our work and social lives?
  • Economy. This is the final leg of the table that is the “glue” or economic engine that keeps the whole thing together. Do we create ways for our citizens to earn a livelihood to pursue their dreams, support their families, and enjoy the manifest benefits of living in the greatest country in the world?

Over the next month or two, I plan to drill down into each of these terms that I believe we can use to filter our thinking and to guide us as we move forward as a City. We can use it to fashion a “united vision” that we can use as a “destination” to get us all working together and pulling in one direction as unanimously as our human weaknesses will allow.

Source: Urban Land Use Planning (Fifth Edition) by Philip R. Berke, David R. Godschalk and Edward J. Kaiser, with Daniel A. Rodriguez, University of Illinois Press, 2006.

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Jun 16 2008

A “People Person”

Today I had the opportunity to meet with two members of the Ann Arbor Fire Department union. We had what I felt was an an excellent discussion of my background and personal philosophy and why I felt I would be the best candidate for the City Council position. As a young lieutenant in the Air Force, I quickly learned that the only real “assets” that any organization possesses are its people. I saw first hand how “good” people made up for “bad” equipment everyday. First, our enemy in Viet Nam showed that despite being outnumbered, out gunned and out supplied they could hold their own against a supposedly superior enemy by working harder and being smart. 1000’s of miles away, behind the Iron Curtain, the Communists in the Soviet Union, another “Super Power” was able to bluff us into believing that they were a “Super Power for 40 years before we were able to unmask the fraud!

These experiences convinced me that when I get to be in charge of my own organization, military or civilian, that I would conduct myself with the following inviolate priorities:

1. Put People First! Hire the best and brightest!

2. Train, Train, Train!! and then train some more.

3. Equip them with the best equipment money can buy.

This personal priority list has served me well whether running an Air Force Squadron or small business and I am sure it will work with police and fire department. I will never deviate from these priorities. Our recent discussions on spending $42M for a new municipal complex reminded me of my personal priority and it is unfortunate that certain members of City Council consider a building more important than the people that occupy it. A building cannot respond to a 911 call. Only police can. We need guaranteed “feet on the street”.

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Jun 12 2008

When is a “dollar” not a “dollar”?

Published by under Lessons learned

No, I am not referring to a trip to Europe and exchanging a stack of dollars for a much smaller stack of Euros. I am talking about what happens when I am promised a financial payoff in the future in exchange for providing a financial benefit today. Bankers figured this concept out 100’s of years ago when they developed the concept of a mortgage. Basically it is this…Would you rather have me give you a dollar today or a dollar one year from today? I think most of us would prefer to have the dollar in our pocket today. Why is that?

The reason is that if I have a dollar today I can put it in a savings account and earn interest on the dollar. Let’s assume I can earn 5% on my dollar so that a year from today I will have $1.05. So when we are pondering the dollar today vs the dollar next year we can see the choice is actually would you rather have $1.05 today or $1.00 one year from now. If we take the same idea and flip it around we can actually say that if I lose the opportunity to put the dollar in my saving account today and earn interest on it the dollar I receive next year is really not worth a dollar. I could say that my the dollar received 1 year from today is actually only worth $0.95. This is a very simplified way to look at two important financial concepts, Net Present Value, NPV, and Net Future Value, NFV. In the first comparison we showed that when comparing the two scenarios, a dollar received today compared to a dollar received in one year, the Net Present Value, NPV, of the dollar received today is $1.05 and the opposite comparison is the dollar received next year has a Net Future Value, NFV, of $0.95 all other things being equal.

You are probably asking yourself why even bother to make the calculations? When you are starting a project like the Larcom renovation to accommodate the Police and Municipal Court, and you start comparing possible scenarios that extend out 60 years, the calculations can drastically alter your decisions. This is the mistake that Councilman Greden made when he announced at the June 2, 2008 City Council meeting that if we build the new Police Court facility at Larcom it would save the City $52,000,000. Councilman Greden was correct it would save the City $52,000,000 but the City would not benefit from the savings for 50 years!

If we apply the concept of NFV of $52,000,000 received 50 years from now the savings actually turns into a loss and he would have been forced to vote the opposite way on the bond issue. This kind of mistake when you are dealing with your own money can make YOU look foolish. These mistakes when you are dealing with taxpayer money…your money makes US all look foolish.

It may be too late to stop this project, but the lesson we need to learn is that our elected city officials must have the skill set to help them make complex financial decisions. The stakes are high. The City General Fund budget is $80M and if you add in the other City accounts our elected officials are handling 100’s of millions more.

I have an MBA plus a very strong background in finance and accounting. As a small business professional, entrepreneur, business consultant and Angel Investor I have learned how to make these kinds of difficult decisions. I hope you will give me a chance to offer another independent voice, analytical mind and listening ears to the council that will help us make efficient use of your money.

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