That wise American philosopher Yogi Berra once said “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.” That is more than just another of Yogi’s malapropisms and humorous utterances. Nothing could be more true.
A vision for the future guides plans and actions. Things change, adjustments are made, unexpected events like a once in a century pandemic intrude, but the vision becomes all the more essential in times of increased uncertainty.
The challenges we face as we come out of the pandemic require coordination and cooperation on a scale that transcends individual municipalities.
These challenges include responding to the existential threat of sea level rise, improving our education system in the face of $16 million dollars in lost state aid with more cuts to come, dealing with the lack of affordable housing stock for young families, confronting one of the highest per capita substance abuse problems in the state, dealing with our ranking of 20th out of 21 counties in terms of the percentage of young people out of school and out of work, reversing a median age increase that continues to be the highest in the state and increases each year, just to name a few. State health department statistics show that life expectancy for those born in Cape May County is almost 4 years less than the state average. Why should that be so? Why should we accept it as a given?
This is a time to build, However we lack a countywide vision for where we want to go. A look at the website for the county planning effort holds out little comfort.
The website “data book” is full of outdated statistics and analysis, much of it from the 2010 census. One even finds a South Jersey Transportation and Planning Organization population projection for 2040 which the agency itself long ago discarded. The public is invited to read a poverty level analysis from 2010, work status statistics from 2006, and a housing characteristic report that is over a decade old.
A set of reports that are updated only after every ten year census report is hardly an indication of a robust planning effort. Envisioning the future we want for this county and laying out the action steps to get there requires more than land use plans and a set of documents done only because they are required to obtain state and federal road funds. We currently “plan” only where we are required to do so.
The plans that exist are absent our aspirations as a community. Most are formulaic responses to government requirements. Necessary perhaps, but they fail to inspire, to guide, to interconnect our actions in environmental protection, preservation, housing stock development, economic development, education and quality of life.
A community developed vision for the future would ground our actions in a shared framework that lends substance to individual plans.
There is much that we all love about life in our county with its diverse local habitats. There is also much that needs attention. We need to move away from a series of reactive activities and guide those actions with a common, broad but inclusive vision for the future.
We are a county where 60% of our jobs are tied to a seasonal economy that offers the young fewer prospects for a bright future. Homes are increasingly priced beyond the means that the seasonal economy can provide for a broad swath of our citizens. We have a branch community college whose enrollment has been declining for a decade. Many in the county could not even tell you where it resides. One could go on.
Let’s commit to the development of a shared and inclusive vision for our county with its extraordinary natural resources. Planning cannot be formulaic. It cannot be decennial, dependent on census we don’t even take seriously when it occurs.
How did we get here? Cape May County had always been a backwater county, primarily dependent on tourism, fishing and farming. We were so remote that a half century ago, we boasted some of the cheapest real estate in the state. Today the opposite is true. Not only is our desirability as a place to own a second home greatly increased, but also the Information Age has transformed our beautiful county into a place where one need not only visit, but via the internet, may reside while holding a job almost anywhere.
This fact is drawing us into the mainstream of the surrounding national and international economy. As a result, highly paid employees are significantly driving up real state prices. People working in local jobs now find themselves increasingly unable to afford to reside in Cape May County.
Our county planning office, which manages our current circumstances, needs to be reimagined, to be transformed into a Visioning & Planning Department, structured to integrate Cape May County into the far more demanding – and rewarding – state and regional economy.
We all want the best future for our unique county. That starts with a vision for what we aspire to be.
From the Bible: I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Jeremiah 29:11