OUR OPINION: Grand Forks icons face Court of Public Opinion
Smiley lost. Riverside Pool won. Why? Credit the great Court of Public Opinion, whose verdicts influence life so profoundly in Grand Forks and everywhere else in America -- and whose mysterious workings command even more attention than do those o...
Smiley lost. Riverside Pool won. Why?
Credit the great Court of Public Opinion, whose verdicts influence life so profoundly in Grand Forks and everywhere else in America -- and whose mysterious workings command even more attention than do those of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Actually, saying Smiley "lost" is premature, given that the City Council will vote Monday on whether to accept a demolition bid. But given the fact that the council voted unanimously in February to tear Smiley down, Smiley seems destined to become a picture page in a Grand Forks history book.
Meanwhile, Riverside Pool won a reprieve in a 2008 citywide vote and is being renovated this year.
One key to understanding both issues is to remember that they could have gone either way. Pool supporters could have lost the 2008 election. In fact, most supporters at first thought they would lose it, judging by the way they fought putting the issue on the ballot and mourned once it got there.
Likewise, Smiley could have been saved. Marches, ad campaigns, crowds packing the City Council chambers week after week: If those things had taken place, then the process would be in place today to renovate and repaint Smiley rather than tear it down.
But those things didn't take place, at least with enough intensity.
And that's the key. As supporters know, in order to win government spending for a nonessential or "luxury" project, you've got to have a majority of the public (or a very vocal minority) on your side. The pool supporters won that support; Smiley's supporters did not (or at least, they haven't won it yet).
So, does it follow that Riverside Pool's supporters simply were better skilled in the arts of marketing and public relations?
Not necessarily, because it takes more than good leadership to win at this game. Luck has a lot to do with it, too. Grand Forks felt flush early last year, as shown by the fact that the mayor and a council member defeated tax-cut challengers in the June election. Almost all other local incumbents won re-election, too.
Did that sense of contentment and relative prosperity help Riverside Pool? You bet it did.
In contrast, nobody's feeling economically flush today, even though the national recession has only stung -- not slashed -- Grand Forks. No wonder the council is balking at paying $400,000 to renovate "a water tower that doesn't hold water," as council member Terry Bjerke described it.
Then there's the intangible matter of the inherent appeal of the thing. To voters' satisfaction, Riverside Pool's supporters proved that a renovated pool could be efficient, relatively inexpensive and widely used. Furthermore, the pool was a Depression-era Works Progress Administration project; that's a heritage that graces some of America's favorite landmarks.
Clearly, showing the civic value of a smiley-faced tower is a taller order. Smiley's supporters tried valiantly, suggesting that the tower be turned into the Symbol of the City and an "eye in the sky" restaurant, among other ideas. But their ideas didn't resonate with enough people. At a different moment in history, one of them might have.
It's an ethereal thing, this Court of Public Opinion. But its decisions make huge differences, and it's no wonder that whole industries have arisen to try to make the court sway.
-- Tom Dennis for the Herald