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Forums spark community problem-solving: five forums help shape discussions of regional problems.

Sometimes what is obvious can produce innovations. The Day's editorial board adopted that philosophy this year to address major problems confronting southeastern Connecticut.

For the past five years, our region has been in transition from a longtime dependence on military spending to a newer era of biotechnology, tourism, and major casino growth. Gary Farrugia, our editor and publisher (newly arrived from The Philadelphia Inquirer), believed that the newspaper could shape strong, effective discussions of regional problems, particularly concerning growth.

So in January, when the newspaper set its editorial agenda, we announced a series of five forums the newspaper would sponsor: downtown New London economic development, a regional water system, regional housing needs, transportation necessities, and home rule versus regionalism.

We deliberately set realistic goals. We knew we must avoid being a participant in carrying out the plans that developed. But The Day also saw its responsibility to start the conversations and to encourage cooperation.

The forums were honest, objective attempts to address the facts, and they have succeeded beyond our expectations. We reported the discussions in the next day's papers, and we published special four-page Perspective sections the Sunday following each forum.

By conducting successful forums, we did in fact produce creative ideas. We brought people together who had not been a cohesive force in the past. And we helped develop candid (not threatening) conversations between long-standing adversaries.

The first forum on downtown New London gathered a variety of groups all working for a common purpose, but containing factions that had been at odds. Frankly, a lot of the people there (20 in all) didn't like each other. We helped to defuse that problem by inviting the former mayor of Newburyport, Massachusetts, a successful small city, and a development program manager from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, another city that's on the move.

We made it clear to the New London participants that this was not an attempt to say, "This is the way you have to do it," but rather to say, "Here's what they did and it worked."

The following week, I invited back the New London people -- including city officials, development group administrators, business people, developers, and historic preservation organizations. The discussion went so well that the various parties met the next week on their own.

Bottom line: There is a better sense of cooperation as a result, and private investors are beginning to take a more serious look at New London. To a large extent, natural economic forces made possible that result, but our forums helped. Our housing forum run by associate editorial page editor Maura Casey made obvious how serious the shortage of affordable housing is. It also emphasized that economic growth cannot continue unless cities and suburbs plan together to provide housing.

This is the thorniest regional problem we have because each town has its own zoning regulations. The suburbs don't want lower-cost housing, and the cities believe they already have provided enough. We will continue to put special emphasis on this issue to encourage communities to develop housing that serves a broader mix of economic ranges.

When we turned to regional water problems, The Day's forum addressed an issue that deputy editorial page editor Greg Stone had been wrestling with for years. His recent editorials had urged better cooperation and coordination between warring factions in the regional water agency and the regional Council of Governments. In fact, the forum advanced ideas that expanded on how to make this happen.

The forum on home rule run by Casey made it clear that many towns have remained mired in believing they are in charge of their destiny when, in fact, the role of the state is much greater. In between the two is an opportunity for cities and towns to come together to advance solutions to problems that, if well-prepared and strongly backed by the communities, may force solutions on the state.

Our last forum will deal with statewide and local transportation issues. One is the poor condition of Interstate 95, the main north/south road in New England, which has begun to inhibit regional economic growth.

In exercising editorial page leadership, we have helped to shape regional discussions of major issues that will occupy center stage for years to come.

RELATED ARTICLE: New ideas

Newsday runs an "Asides" column on its Second Editorial" page. The column consists of 100- to 200-word comments written by editorial writers. These are creative, well-written personal views, which run the gamut of topics.

The Cincinnati Enquirer composes an annual "whine" list in which editorial writers sum up complaints that have cropped up through the year.

John Webster of the The Spokesman-Review in Spokane wanted more high-quality, issue-oriented letters. So he came up with the idea of setting up a database of hundreds of writers from e-mailed letters. When a topic comes up, he has the option of sending out e-mails to all or part of the group to see if anyone is interested in commenting. His "reader advisory network" has increased the flow and quality of letters.

NCEW member Morgan McGinley is editorial page editor of The Day in New London, Connecticut, and a past president of NCEW E-mail him at mmcginley@theday.com
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Article Details
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Author:McGinley, Morgan
Publication:The Masthead
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2002
Words:863
Previous Article:Innovate, schminovate! The answer isn't innovation; it's using your current tools better.
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