My surreal + necessary talk at TEDxWindham
In the spring of 2015 I had the opportunity to speak at TEDxWindham. It was an absolutely wonderful event and provided me with a platform to give a talk on a subject matter that I believe is highly timely and important. More on that later. First, I'd like to take a few minutes to discuss the entire journey, why I call it "surreal," and why it's these types of experiences that really do help you live longer.
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The town of Windham is a small hamlet located in New Hampshire as one of the outlying suburbs of Boston. I've been to the Northeast several times, but never to the Boston area. Funny story, I was once the guest of a CEO on his company's corporate jet. I was helping to stage an event in upstate New York, with one following the next day in southern Vermont. By Lear jet it's about an hour or so junket. By car, however, the trip is about eight hours. How do I know this? Because I was running late back to the airport, and the CEO had to go (you don't keep CEOs waiting). Yep, I got left. I turned right around, rented a Ford Focus, and drove from Syracuse, NY to southern Vermont. Pretty country. Lots of picturesque red barns, towns nestled in valleys, etc. I even drove by Sleepy Hollow (thankfully I crossed the bridge before any Hessian apparitions chased down my donkey Focus.) The thing I was most amazed by was the six-foot snowdrifts on the sides of the roads...in April. My recent trip to Windham wasn't quite so fraught with travel impediments, although it was another April and it was cold. At least for a southern guy like me.
What are you doing here?
Which leads to the first and most surreal aspect of this adventure, at least for me. I mentioned that TEDxWindham provided me a platform for what I believe is a timely and important message. This message surrounds the idea of rethinking the way we conduct economic development. My larger point was explaining how economic "improvement" is a much better and more natural way to think about the concept. For more on that, please watch the talk. I think this aspect is particularly relevant to rural communities, old industrial regions, and to diverse/underserved populations. And being from Mississippi, I happen to come from a state that is relatively rural, still reliant a great deal on "old industry," and certainly has a large percentage of minority and underserved populations. (In fact, for those of you not from Mississippi, let me hit you with these facts: Mississippi is the poorest state in the Union in terms of per capita and median household income, and has the highest percentage of African-American citizens at nearly 40%). By comparison, Windham, New Hampshire is over 95% Caucasian with an average per capita income approximately 12% higher than the national average.
Let me frankly explain what this means - a town of relatively well-off white folks were having a guy from Mississippi give a talk about economic development principles. Actually, a talk about how most economic development principles are looking at the issue the wrong way. Does that not seem surreal to anyone else? Regardless I was honored to be given the opportunity to give the talk, and I think that the subject matter is actually something that - given the changing economy - is applicable to every region regardless of demography or geography.
Did I mention TEDxWindham was held in a castle?
Yep. Searles Castle. Well, to be technically correct, TEDxWindham was held in the chapel of Searles Castle. The impressive abode was built in Windham by Edward F. Searles and completed in 1915. It was modeled after a Tudor-era stone country home, and mimics Stanton Harcourt Manor in Oxon County, England. The not-so-secret history of Searles Castle is that it's builder originally came into his fortune through marriage (after pledging to be a confirmed life-long bachelor) to a widow 22 years his senior. Mrs. Searles became suddenly ill and died a few years later (insert allegations here), leaving what amounted to about a billion dollars (in today's money) to her junior husband, who wiped away his tears and proceeded to build his castle in Windham. While this would no doubt make a great episode for Discover ID today, tabloid rumors faded in the early 20th century and we're left with a Gothic masterpiece in the hills of New Hampshire. Today the space is used for corporate and social events, weddings, and the like. If you're interested in a New England wedding with great olde English charm, give them a ring. You could do worse.
As I said the actual TEDxWindham event was held in the Searles Castle chapel, which is across the street from the main castle building, but carries the same architectural style and flair. It was unique and great location to have the event, and added to my overall surreal-overload in the adventure.
As someone who has helped organize a couple of these things, let me say hats-off to the producers and presenters. I don't know if it's well known outside of the TED-head community, but NOBODY profits from TEDx events. The licensee cannot benefit financially by the rules of TED, and it is forbidden to pay speaker fees or honorariums. Travel costs of speakers may be reimbursed, but that's about it. Huzzah to the TEDxWindham crew and the lineup of speakers. Great job. Here's the full playlist from the event:
- having never been specifically to the greater Boston area,
- having an affinity for all things creepy, and
- having watched the first season of Salem with the wife (she came with me to Windham), we naturally decided to swing by Cotton Mather's old haunts. We were a bit late getting to town so unfortunately the Witch Museum was closed, although it afforded us a great backdrop for selfies.
The town (or village??) was really a neat experience, and I'd encourage anyone who has the least bit of interest in history or the macabre to visit. Plus the food ain't bad, either. We had possibly the best piece of beef I've ever sampled just off the central town square at an Irish Pub called O'Neills. And yes, it was a bit eerie chowing down on steak and chugging lager right next door to a seventeenth century cemetery. But hey, witches gonna witch, right? Salem was great and I hope to make it back for Halloween one year.
Son of a Beach it was COLD
The New Englanders were laughing at me. I was bundled up in April when it was a balmy 43-degrees. In their defense, they had just dig out from under the worst snow storm to hit the eastern seaboard since before Giles Cory was crushed by all those stones. The day before TEDx we drove out to the Massachusetts beach. Granted, wind chills in the 30's doesn't exactly make for Cocomo, but we couldn't resist the opportunity to visit those legendary Atlantic shores. Afterwards, we did in fact sample the local Lobster Roll (...not from McDonald's...). I'm glad we did. It has made watching The Affair on Showtime that much more relate-able.
The Case for Economic Improvement
So what about this TEDx talk that I gave? I alluded to the content at the beginning of this article. Basically the overriding concept is that the traditional idea of economic "development" misses the boat (or 'downeaster') in terms of what the right and necessary outcome of any development initiative should be - this outcome being what I'm calling Economic Improvement. To get the whole story, you'll have to watch the video below. But I can offer these bullet points:
• The bi-partisan-ly practiced method of economic development - tax incentives & labor pooling - is outdated and counter productive. It forces us to compete on quantity and commodity when those aspects are not what will drive growth in the 21st century.
• A big problem with economic "development" is it's metrics stop short of measuring real change. The jobless rate and raw number of businesses locating to an area misses the big picture... did the development actually "improve" the quality of life and standard of living of a region's population? This should be the end-prize, and one which only a vibrant and robust free market system can satisfy.
• And what about those left behind by re-vitalization efforts? The "retail syndrome" of the 1990s left many outlying metropolitan areas full of strip mall ghost-towns and souless-faux neighborhoods. For these regions, we don't need to focus on "re-vitalization." This is one instance that central planning (vitalization) is absolutely necessary for creative placemaking to succeed.
• The communities and populations who focus on quality in the 21st century - quality of place and quality of life - will be the winners in this new economy.
I know I remarked earlier in this piece of how "surreal" it was for a guy from a region of the country so apparently different from the Windham area to be giving a talk on economic development concepts. The truth is, I jumped at the opportunity to give my talk from that area's platform. You see, while I believe that the concept on which I speak is intrinsically important to Mississippi and the rural southeast, I don't think it is especially unique to the area... or any area. I think it is a concept that needs consideration for a developed national economy, competitive regional ones, and even international developing entities. Being able to give this talk outside of my home region I think will allow for wider exposure of the message, and I certainly hope many may ultimately find benefit.
Thanks to the state of New Hampshire, the town of Windham, and the organizers of the event for allowing me this opportunity. I'm proud to call myself an alumni of TEDxWindham.