To listen to us campaign for City Council, you’d think the only problem we have in the City of Falls Church is a lack of development and that our success depends on the Council becoming a super planning commission on steroids. The candidates agree that Smart Growth will help solve our fiscal problems and make us more like Arlington and Alexandria. Each candidate, me included, espouses the benefits of development, risk-taking, attracting businesses by lowering taxes or marketing our City’s strengths to those currently investing their money into far less desirable locations along the Silver Line.
Now let’s assume that we succeeded in attracting development that fits into our small area plans and that our municipal coffers overflow with revenue from a diverse and dependable tax base. What would we do with the money?
There are many options, including rebuilding the high school, increasing teacher and city employee pay, paying down long-term debt, contributing to enterprise funds, updating the library and hedging against future liabilities like the VRS, but that’s not the point. The point is that it is useful to re-examine your community’s vision periodically to ensure that today’s initiatives are aligned with our vision and goals for our community. Our common values, goals and a vision for the future will guide us in good times and bad.
That’s why this race is about much more than Smart Growth and revitalization of the City. It’s about articulating and realizing our community’s vision. What vision you ask? That’s the real problem: a lack of vision. Some think that all we have to do to succeed is to mimic Arlington or Tysons. But it’s more complicated that that: Arlington’s successes can teach us a lot, but we must redefine our own path, our own “Falls Church City way.”
In fact the City’s vision is so faded that many of our citizens are not sure why we exist as a separate city anymore. The founding fathers and mothers of this City knew, and they worked tirelessly to achieve that vision of a City created for the schools. Now is the time to clearly define what we want to be, who we are, and what is most important to us as a City and as a community in the 21st Century.
In fact the City’s vision is so faded that many of our citizens are not sure why we exist as a separate city anymore.
So it appears that we are at a crossroads and it’s a vision thing. People like to get behind a vision, to know what we’re working for. We see the warning signs all around us. A City founded on a vision of excellent schools barely fills the open seats on the school board and we feel the need to raise the stipend to attract more candidates. The PTA meeting where the city’s budget was presented had so few attendees the current council candidates had to sit together to make a crowd. We’ve let teacher and city employee pay slip so far out of whack even the most dedicated professionals are being forced to consider leaving. To what end? What are we waiting for?
It is time for us to re-examine and update our City’s vision in light of current economic and demographic realities. Does it still make sense to make the schools the centerpiece of our City’s future: to rekindle the vision of educational excellence at every level from the teachers to the buildings and equipment they use to teach?
As a technologist and entrepreneur, I think it does. Making education and life-long learning the centerpiece of our new vision for the 21st century fits the needs of the City and of society as a whole. I see a City with state-of-the-art schools that promote excellence at every level. I see a vibrant arts community that adds context and depth to the community and provides facilities that the schools and the larger community share. I see a City that emphasizes sustainability in all it does and acts as a 2 square mile laboratory providing our students with ample opportunities to gain first-hand knowledge outside the classroom. I see stores, restaurants and services converging on the City and thriving because they can be part of the shared vision. I see people from Fairfax County and Arlington riding the train to Falls Church to enjoy its unique scene.
But that’s just one candidate’s vision. To succeed, we need more than another vision statement cut and pasted from the Shirlington Small Area Plan because that’s not enough for our City. What we need is a shared vision that ties into why people choose Falls Church over McLean or Arlington. Our City Council must play a central role in that effort. We need to conduct a public visioning exercise in this City that involves everyone and provides a shared purpose we can all get behind. And that’s why I’m running for Council.
Paul Handly is a candidate running for Falls Church City Council.