First week at new winter office

Today I took a long walk down 2nd Street in Millville, New Jersey. I expect to be working in town all winter before returning to my bayshore office at Money Island in the spring. I took the two mile walk after a nonprofit accounting engagement that is not going well triggered an upset in my business plan this week. I blogged about that separately last night to blow off steam.

Downtown Millville is about half vacant. I didn’t actually count the closed storefronts but “half” is a solid estimate. I thought about other communications in my past in Pennsylvania that have rebounded from this downtown blight. I thought about the unique challenges facing this region of New Jersey. Those negative perceptions were reinforced when I stopped into the municipal office. I thought about all the business permit applications I’ve made in New Jersey: at least a dozen and only one of them approved. Financing attempts face similar results. More than a dozen applications submitted, only one approved. Then I thought about my most respected local business adviser who says “never be a victim” and so I immediately moved away from the negative thoughts.

I thought about how much time and money I wasted this year on idiotic government actions, including defending the multiple legal actions by four state agencies over government controlled business permits. I often think about what great progress could be made if we put that money and energy into rebuilding rather than fighting each other!

I stopped into an art exhibit at the Clay College that focused on social justice. “Build communities” logo in the window caught my attention. I feel like I do the same work as these artists, but as an accountant. I wonder how many people would see the connection.

I made two resolutions during the walk:

1) I will learn more about local redevelopment, and what is different between Millville and Vineland downtown. (Vineland is rebounding). I consider myself to be strong on small business development but all my recent experience is with rural communities. My distant past with Philadelphia SBDC and recent past interactions with Atlantic City SBDC and other similar organizations helps me see the potential. But I really don’t know enough to identify the problems with this downtown.

2) I will blog about “getting to know Millville” on a daily basis. I won’t include any names, but will document my progress in building collaborative business relationships.

 

Tension over the Downe docks

It’s no secret that the marinas and supporting businesses all along the NJ bayshore are struggling. The classic predictable human response to environmental pressures is increased tension among members of the community. That’s not unique to us. It happens everywhere. But the environmental pressure is certainly increasing and tensions are rising. The watermen here, pushed out of their docks this year, are furious that another marina doesn’t face the same costs as they do here. The fact is that I echoed their complaints without knowing anything about the actual costs of either marina.

By coincidence, I talked with two other nearby recreational marina owners earlier in the day on other unrelated business. I feel for them. They are really working hard to make a sustainable future. I try to be supportive. I remind myself that I have a lousy track record of predicting the future so maybe my negative forecasts for the industry will turn out dead wrong. But to me, it doesn’t look good for recreational fishing as a business. The only bright spot I see is the local commercial fishing and aquaculture businesses.

Tonight a guy I really don’t know from Fortescue who is known by some of the other marina guys here, was outraged by something I said in the newspaper and put in writing about the tension here. He seemed ready to make a scene to call me out for not knowing the facts. He was right, I don’t know that facts. It’s not my intent to know the facts. We have a biographer for that and it’s just not my area of interest. My role, particularly right here, is to record the human struggles and response.

I hadn’t actually put together the face of this guy, a township committeeman, with the story until that moment that he was the guy that our watermen complain about. I should know the local committeemen but I don’t. My first thought was if he is upset by something this minor like a newspaper article and a blog post, then we could have an explosion when the book comes out. As far as I know, the publisher goes into much greater detail on the Fortescue marina finances and mismanagement. But other than these casual comments, I really don’t know much about the topic. I only know what the guys talk about, and lately that’s mostly complaints.

The mayor chimed in too with complaints. That’s nothing new and he is more tactful. The mayor knows that reporters deliberately play us against each other for the purpose of getting their story. They get statements from me and a statement from him deliberately because they know that we have conflicting opinions. That’s been going on for two decades. Normally a third community member, Meghan, who is better respected than either of us guys, offers a balanced middle-of-the-road opinion to wrap up the story.

The committeeman probably doesn’t know that I’ve been sued close to a dozen times for millions of dollars over my unpopular opinions. He probably doesn’t know that I have judgements from those lawsuits far more than I’ll ever earn or be worth, and that none of that intimidates me from continuing to express an opinion. He might not even know that I’ve received death threats and was almost killed in a shocking plot to “take me out” by a local politician in his same position years ago. He did not know about the organizational structure of Money Island or the history of Baysave. Again, it’s not my job to get into that. I just know that my opinions are not popular with local government. It’s always been that way and nobody expects that to change. Nevertheless, my opinions will always be easy to read.

Fortescue primarily serves recreational fishing while Money Island is moving toward serving large commercial operations. The shift is causing tensions among the former recreational boaters and small commercial boats that used to dock here.
Fortescue primarily serves recreational fishing while Money Island (shown) is moving toward serving large commercial aquaculture operations that will emerge over the next decades. The shift is causing tensions among the former recreational boaters and small commercial boats that used to dock here.

The new search for spiritual inspiration by spreading the story

I’ve been talking and writing about a lot of “new” stuff lately: new ideas, new strategies, new paradigms to stabilize and restore our bayshore. It’s clear that “same old” won’t work and we need to explore these new concepts for learning to occur that will break the cycle of failed past policies. This Saturday morning the first thing that caught my attention was this email excerpt from Kristin Lin, Editor of the On Being Project talking about new spiritual outlook:

“In 2005, Rachel Naomi Remen said something that may sound a little more ominous now:

“The world is made up of stories; it’s not made up of facts.”

A decade later, Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s book Strangers in Their Own Land, about her time spent living in Louisiana among Tea Party conservatives, offered a different articulation of this with the concept of the “deep story.” “You take facts out of the deep story. You take moral precepts out of the deep story,” she explained in her On Being interview. “It’s what feels true.” Hochschild says we all have deep stories, no matter our politics and no matter the facts.

While the truth of these observations has certainly revealed itself in contemporary American political life, we also need to examine the role that story plays in our personal lives. “Sometimes we need a story more than food in order to live,” Remen says. Stories touch “something that is human in us and is probably unchanging.” They can offer structure or sense, comfort or hope. They are also how we understand each other across time — what Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie describes, particular to Judaism, as a “relay race” of contemplation and interpretation over thousands of years. So if stories are both the bedrock to humanity and part of why we feel so divided right now, where does that leave us?

Maybe the way forward is in editing and reexamining what’s in front of us. “Not everything that we’ve inherited is worthy of being passed on, like trauma and memories and values that have evolved,” Lau-Lavie says. “We need to read some of those sacred words as metaphor, as bygone models, as invitations for creativity.”

For Lau-Lavie, this call to remix and reinterpret has led to initiatives like Lab/Shul, a pop-up synagogue with a tagline that includes the language “artist-driven, everybody-friendly, God-optional,” and Storahtelling, which combines sacred storytelling with contemporary theater to make Jewish tradition more accessible to younger generations.

And perhaps there’s solace in the idea that, as Remen says, “no one’s story is ever finished.” The passing down of stories across generations allows for constant reinvention, both on the page and off. Or, as Lau-Lavie says of Lab/Shul, “We’re finding the in-between. It’s how to be cheeky without being cheesy, and how to be profound.”

It’s clear that I need a spiritual refresher to keep moving forward in a ‘post-drowning’ world. I’m not the only one. It’s easy to see the effects of decades of environmental injustice in our community: depression, substance abuse, mental illness, engrained poverty. The evil, the incompetence and the corruption continue in wealthier government employees. The financial and psychological gap between these government and industry people and the people who pay their lifestyle grows wider each year. We can’t change that. What I can do is isolate and protect myself from this oppression to a limited degree. I can expand my circle of positive people and spread a positive story. We need a story of inspiration.

This week I heard from two people, one retired and one still in government, that the division of opinion within NJDEP is widening. That’s unconfirmed hearsay. Yet I have a new letter on the stationary of the NJ Attorney General, addressed to NJ Superior Court and signed by a state attorney stating that there office has no plans of further action here in the legal assault at Money Island after devastating our community and our local businesses. They are content to extort, pillage and plunder us for decades, sue us into extinction, then leave us to bleed to death on the battlefield. The final blow was when I heard a report, also unconfirmed, that government will step up its financial assault on the few remaining local marinas. Years ago the state took over the financial land use burdens of one marina (Fortescue) but refused to do it for others (Money Island). Now I’ve heard that local taxpayers will take over the financial burdens of operating the Fortescue Marina. The mayor has publicly favored the Fortescue Marina for financial support over the few other local marinas. We’ve known that for years and there may be legitimate (even if unfair) strategic reasons for that. Yet one of the Committee members has direct financial interests in the Fortescue Marina . Yesterday a neighbor called to ask if that member has a legal obligation to abstain from approving the new financial deal that benefits him directly. I replied that the problem is far worse than that; no procedural objection is going to stop the steamrolling of local government over its citizens.

There is simply no way that a private enterprise can compete with the unlimited financial resources of government. Our local marinas lose money, for sure, that is no secret. But ill-advised government strategies, corruption and mismanagement is making this problem much worse.

Yesterday I read a text message from a stranger; apparently I did not see it for several weeks after it was sent; talking about the need for a community group to support decency in our own local community best known for its lack of it. I know good people are out there. I just need to find a way to connect in this crazy world.

So this is where I am. Let’s figure out where to go from here.