Hooray for civic initiative

Published: 09-26-2023 4:06 PM

Lebanon city government continues to distinguish itself by tackling head-on the most pressing issues facing the community. While this kind of activism will not be met with universal favor, in our view it represents the triumph of realism over the wishful thinking indulged in by too many communities that wait interminably for somebody else — the state or federal governments, nonprofits or the private sector — to swoop in and solve their problems.

As our colleague Patrick Adrian reported, the City Council recently designated the former site of the city’s public works operation at 20 Spencer St. to be redeveloped for affordable housing. A minority of the council wanted to solicit proposals for commercial and market-rate housing developments as well, but the majority kept their eyes on the ball, limiting the competition to affordable housing.

This makes all the sense in the world. The lack of affordable housing in the city, and the region as a whole, is unquestionably the number one problem the Upper Valley faces. The city controls the 1.9-acre property and has spent $840,000 on an environmental cleanup; it is fully justified in leveraging that investment to address its top priority. Lebanon does not lack for commercial development opportunities, and affordable housing may be viewed as a prime economic development tool in its own right when so many employers are desperate to find workers. And should the affordable-housing proposals fall short, the council can always pivot to other kinds of development.

If affordable housing is the region’s most severe problem, the lack of affordable child care runs it a close second. Again the city has taken the initiative, proposing to open a city-owned child-care center with spaces for up to 200 children off Route 12A in West Lebanon, in partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central New Hampshire, which would manage the child-care services. It is notable that the city plans to offer half the available spaces to families with low- to moderate-incomes. The lack of affordable child care is another brake on the region’s economic vitality, so again direct action by the city promotes multiple goals.

At the same time, the city is not ignoring its moral and legal obligations to a segment of the population that attracts far less public sympathy than working-class families that need access to housing and child care. We refer to the homeless, for whom the city proposes to open an emergency shelter during the winter months that would be operated by the White River Junction-based Upper Valley Haven. The 15-bed overnight shelter would be located in a vacant commercial building recently acquired by the city at 160 Mechanic St., which is scheduled to eventually be torn down to make way for a roundabout. (To our mind, a homeless shelter is a higher and better use of the property than a roundabout, but that is an editorial for another day.)

City Manager Shaun Mulholland notes that the city is required under New Hampshire law to provide shelter or temporary housing to those in need. Lebanon is one of the largest communities in New Hampshire without a homeless shelter, and when the closest shelters, in White River Junction and Claremont, are full, as they often are, the city is obliged to make other arrangements, such as putting up unhoused people in motels. That the need is great may be inferred from the fact that the city’s housing assistance spending for the current year is $230,000, up from $85,000 just two years ago. Apart from the legal requirement, sheltering the homeless amid the dangers posed by the severity of New England winters is a humanitarian imperative that no government worth the name can afford to shirk.

Another way to measure the worth of government is whether it acts as a responsible steward of the environment, as the Lebanon Conservation Commission recently did by appropriating $500,000 for the Upper Valley Land Trust to secure ownership of a 180-acre parcel off Poverty Lane that includes the 55-acre ecologically significant Martin Brook network of wetlands.

Of course, not many Upper Valley communities have the resources to emulate all that Lebanon is doing. But too many fail to deploy the strengths they do have, perhaps because they are still in thrall to the Ronald Reagan formulation that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

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Lebanon’s efforts demonstrate the opposite. No doubt they will fall short in some respects. Nonetheless, as Franklin D. Roosevelt said in 1936: “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”