Friday, May 27, 2005

Small Town Politics

Before I moved to Celebration, I never got involved in local politics. The closest brush with I ever had with political activism was joining our condo board as an alternate. I only did that for two reasons: 1) Nobody else would; and 2) To get an insider's view, since we had some bad problems going on at the time (as far as I know, the mess is still going strong).

Other than that, I traipsed blithely along through life, letting others make the decisions. Sure, I had some opinions. I found our suburb's attempts at sprucing up the downtown laughable, as well as a waste of money. They built a fancy new train station with a clock tower observation deck that has never been opened to the public. Outside, the scattered chairs around the fountain are supposed to be inviting, except that they're all securely chained to the ground. The latest attempt to increase liveability was to scatter bizarrely painted benches up and down the main street. And I do mean bizzare, featuring weird things like giant eyeballs. One bench even has a fake person sitting on it; maybe that's supposed to work in the same way that hunters use decoy ducks.

I moved to that suburb primarily because it was close to both work and the horse barn. I had no vested interest in it, other than as a place to sleep. Thus, unless some issue arose that would directly hit me in the pocketbook or drastically reduce my quality of life, I didn't give a rat's ass about the politics.

Moving to Celebration was different. It was the first time I'd even chosen a town specifically because of the sense of place. When I first moved away from home, I chose my apartment because it was affordable and close to work, as well as being close to many of my friends. Then, I got married and moved into my husband's townhome, located in a dreary neighborhood that was chosen solely on price. Our next move was to the place I described earlier, chosen strictly for convenience.

Before I visited Celebration, I figured that it would be the same when we eventually moved to Florida. We'd choose somewhere decent and affordable, within reasonable striking distance of the theme parks and beaches. It would be a crash pad inbetween our work and play sessions (and that play would take place at Disney World or other remote locations). I never envisioned swimming at the neighborhood pool, walking downtown to festivals, attending backyard barbeques, or gathering with my neighbors on the front porch.

Visiting the infamous "Disney Town" changed all that. It was the first time I ever fell in love with a community. The ten-year Florida plan suddenly became immediate. We didn't need to look anywhere else; we were home.

We still enjoy the amenities of living the heart of Vacation Country U.S.A., but many of our activities center around home and community. Back in the Midwest, none of our friends lived in the same suburb. Get-togethers were always at some far-off, mutually convenient place. We have out-of-town friends in Florida, but we also have many great friends and neighbors right within Celebration. We're just as likely to drop over at someone's house as we are to meet up with them at a restaurant or theme park.

I'm also in love with the town itself; the boardwalks through the lush green "islands" are so much nicer than the asphalted forest preserves up north. Just last night, a deer literally bounded across my front lawn, and the wild turkeys are always a joy. But it's not just the "suburban wilderness" that I enjoy. I love being able to head downtown, get an ice cream cone, frozen coffee, or some cold lemonade, and relax in an (unchained-gasp!) rocker by the lake.

The acceleration of our parking problems, sealed at the meeting described in my previous blog entry, helped me understand while people enter the pit of vipers also known as local politics. Actually, it was the whole lead-up to the meeting...the vote itself was anti-climatic.

The only reason I started following this issue was because I felt that it threatened downtown Celebration's viability. I've seen plenty of houses, condos, and townhomes spring up all over town without arousing my latent activism. I've heard all the comments that the developers have all the power, but that didn't worry me because I didn't see any blatantly negative repercussions.

Once I realized that condos were going to be built on the downtown parking lots, with nothing more than a token nod at providing alternate parking, I had to jump into the fray. Not only did it cause me to spread my opinions all over the intranet and to add my voice at relevant meetings, but it also made me more aware of the various governing entities in town and the agendas of their individual members.

Now that I've gotten a taste of small-town politics, I must say that it's been quite a shock for a sheltered person like me. In Celebration, the whole thing is compounded by the fact that we're not a "real" town and that The Celebration Company (i.e. Disney) got so many developer-friendly concessions that we can't do anything about. Even if our residental owners' board wanted to take a stand on certain issues, they are pretty much impotent.

Of course, I've also learned that being elected by the residents of Celebration doesn't necessarily mean acting as their voice once you're in a position of power. I used to wonder what led people to campaign so aggressively for the candidates of their choice. Now I see what a difference elections can make on a local level.

If you're thinking about moving to Celebration, I can't deny that it's a wonderful town. As long as it remains the way it is today, with a strong sense of community and a vibrant commercial downtown, I will never, ever move (short of some unavoidable disaster, of course).

But be warned: The things that you gain in terms of living in the best town in America will come with a price. It won't just stay that way unless you help to preserve it. For some, Celebration represents a cash cow to be milked dry and then slaughtered. For others, it's a place to act out personal agendas with no regard for the wishes of the majority. If you want to maintain the wonderful Celebration that exists today, be prepared to work for it.

I know that the parking issue has only just begun. This week's meeting was simply the opening salvo in a long, hard battle with far-reaching consequences on many fronts. I enjoy the positive things about our town, but I learned an important lesson: If I want them to remain, I'm going to have to be active. Otherwise, my beloved Duloc Manor will become just another crash pad, no different than the other homes I've lived in throughout my life...and that would be a real tragedy.

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