Sound Strategy: Consider innovative solutions to complex issue of Greater Outer Banks housing

Sound Strategy: Consider innovative solutions to complex issue of Greater Outer Banks housing

October 26th, 2023

There is always an interesting puzzle at play when something, in hindsight, doesn’t go right.  The stories, people, and preferences of decision makers make for great learning both in the rearview mirror and, crucially, out the windshield as well.  

Staying on the dominant regional theme of housing, perhaps it’s worth looking at other public-private initiatives that have worked when it comes to complex topics to see if there is anything we as a region can learn and apply for our own ends.

In recent times, there is perhaps no better example of public-private partnership in action than the COVID-oriented Operation Warp Speed, the program charged with essentially accelerating the distribution of COVID vaccines.  

Right up front, this example lies in a sea of complexity and anything that references the pandemic is already at risk of being judged by our personal beliefs; if we’re able, for a moment, to place the judgment aside and focus on what worked there are without question great examples.

Operation Warp Speed, by just about any measure, simply worked.  Vaccines were developed, accelerated, distributed, and communicated with an almost unbelievable speed.  Why, in an institutional environment not known at all for speed, was this program so successful?

From a very simple lens, Sound Strategy believes it worked because of the willingness of elected leaders to delegate to the private sector–in fact, the operational leader of the initiative was a vaccine researcher from GlaxoSmithKline (a company with a notable North Carolina presence). 

In addition to this lead, members of the team also included acknowledged and seasoned experts in procurement, distribution, and project management. 

In short, the program funded quite a few private sector companies via the CARES Act to produce something that worked.  In other words, elected leaders had a vision, got great people together, and got out of the way.

Now we ask ourselves for a moment–could something like that work regionally as we try to solve for housing?

Let’s consider, only for a moment, the idea; we’d need a regional approach that reflects our workforce, as opposed to a unilateral county-specific approach (for example, most of Currituck County’s workers work outside the county). 

We’d need elected leaders willing to go at risk in their audacious delegation.  We’d need a collection of seasoned experts in fields like development, zoning, permits, finance, construction, communication, and property management. 

We’d need public funding support in exchange for real deliverables that drive real taxes. 

There’s a reason, as an example, that Columbia University is the largest real estate owner in New York – they don’t pay taxes as a non-profit and as a result keep growing (although that’s a bit problematic as the more they grow, the more taxable real estate they consume).

Delegation, of course, comes with risk, and might be one of tallest hurdles–in one of the many COVID failures highlighted in Bethany McLean’s new book on the subject, she highlights how many institutional leaders seemed to prefer blaming others or outright micromanagement as opposed to leaders who accepted responsibility but boldly delegated for results as happened in Warp Speed. 

In other words, McLean points out that in modern politics it’s better to not be at fault than it is to be responsible.  

Lastly, one of our challenges is the structure of our institutions – our county commissioners are in many cases, and perhaps rightly so, not elected to work regionally. 

Our regional leaders, in the sate House and Senate, have politically drawn districts that often don’t align at all with what we’ll call workforce districts

As an example of this, there is a reason Currituck County is included as part of the Hampton Roads Metropolitan Statistical Area because of workforce flows. 

Finally, as has been highlighted in the recent Dare housing provision in the state budget, even among regional collaborators knowing what’s going on in the budget as it progresses has proven to be problematic at best.  

We’ll need, if we’re to tackle housing, a regional structure akin to Warp Speed if we’re truly to make any progress. 

Absent that structure, and the lack of it can only be because we honestly don’t want it, we’ll continue to stumble down a path that uses a lot of time and appropriated taxpayer resources but with no real results in the lives of our shrinking workforce. 

Despite the floods of failures around the COVID pandemic, Warp Speed stands as an example of what works when elected leaders have a vision, partner with real experts, and deliver what they were asked to do in the time frame they were asked to do it.

WOBX Publisher Clark Twiddy is the author of Outer Banks Visionaries:  Building North Carolina’s Oceanfront which is now available at local bookstores and online.  This is his second book about the Outer Banks. “Sound Strategy”, a weekly commentary from Twiddy, features issues, ideas and information focused on our mission statement of “Covering the Business News of the Greater Outer Banks”.


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