A tale of (at least) two Ashlands

This week I had a refresher course on Ashland civics, and how deep the gap runs between different cultures in our town. I'll stay away from the cliché of "Two Ashlands," in part because there are more than that. But right now I'm focused on two that barely touch. One is our elected officials and the other is the tribe of younger folks creating ways to prosper with a smaller footprint.

This lesson began a year ago at community meetings, when (mostly younger) Ashlanders were brainstorming on projects and ventures that could make our town greener and more self-reliant. A few ventures seemed ready to hit the ground and run; more often they needed more focus and development. But you had to leave impressed with the creativity, passion and ingenuity many of these young adults were trying to bring to Ashland. I did.

I went home and wrote a column for the Tidings titled "A Little Goes a Long Way." It proposed a $25,000 Sustainable Innovation Fund, where a panel selected by the City Council would run a streamlined process to award challenge grants of $500 to $2500 each. Preference would go to projects that had clear plans and goals, brought people together collaboratively, leveraged other sources of support, encouraged employment and conserved or protected resources.

This seemed like a good way both to put meat on the bones of "sustainability," and to reach out decisively to a generation looking for their place in Ashland.

But I had to add this: " Not all the funded projects will pan out. Maybe most won't. But think of this as a numbers game. What if these little grants lift three or four powerful ventures off the ground? Or even one? Would the launch of just one idea that makes Ashland's food supply more secure, creates a complementary currency that pulls people from the rugged margins into the heart of a real-work economy or stimulates green business activity that adds a sturdy cornerstone to Ashland's job base — would any one of these deserve 1/40th of 1 percent of the city's budget?"

Fast-forward one year. Mayor Stromberg takes a proposal to the council to make "sustainability" a new category (along with economic development and culture) for grants from the lodging tax. He suggests launching the change with a $12,500 grant to a qualified agency that would pass it on as mini-grants to some of these new innovators who lack the non-profit status and $500,000 liability insurance policy that grant recipients need to have. Along with a few others impressed by the potential and determination of these young Ashlanders, I testified for the proposal on Tuesday night.

Then I watched the Council deliberate. This was the hard part of the refresher course. It can be rough on your tongue and the inside of your cheeks to silently listen to Councilors seem to miss the point (or, to be fair, miss your point). In the end they voted against a Sustainability Fund with mini-grants, but decided that at least $12,500 of the grants from an already-existing fund would go to sustainability projects. It's not quite clear what that means, but that's usually true when things first change.

This seems like progress. If we're going to use this relatively stable time to shift towards greener practices and a greener job base, we have to take measurable steps. This could be one. But what didn't change last night was the fact that to win a grant, you still need official non-profit status and a $500,000 liability insurance policy to protect the city from lawsuits. And that means a number of venturesome young folks who could make a lot happen for this community with a couple thousand bucks are still on the outside looking in.

That doesn't mean things will stay that way. This week I talked to some Chamber of Commerce/VCB leaders who've been working on sustainability and seem genuinely interested in finding ways to bring this innovative energy inside to work for the community. They saw Tuesday night as one step in an evolution that might take longer than some of us would like. I just hope we'll remember those enterprising folks out on the fringes when the dust settles and this year's tax dollars are all doled out.

What came to mind as I left council chambers was this: We have young farmers sweating in their urban gardens and young inventor-types tinkering all night in old garages who wish city leaders would visit and see what they're trying to do. We have city councilors giving countless hours of unpaid, usually unappreciated time trying to spread too few dollars among too many needs, and they'd like to see some of these young folks at meetings to see what they're trying to do Both think it would make a big difference if the other understood what they have to deal with. I'd say both are right.

Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups," and the novel "Unafraid," with excerpts available at www.unafraidthebook.com.

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