Years ago, I heard Senator Bill Bradley give his famous “three-legged stool” speech. “Think of the American society as a three-legged stool,” said the former Senator and basketball legend. “One leg is the private sector, the second leg is the public sector, government and politics, and the third leg is the nonprofit sector.”
It’s another way of saying that communities are stronger and more resilient when business, government and nonprofit groups work together—the three-legged stool—to address challenges as they arise.
It’s a useful metaphor, but one I hadn’t heard in a while. That’s why I got such a kick out of last year’s All-America City Awards where I met leaders of one of California’s newest cities, Rancho Cordova. They had taken Bradley’s three-legged stool concept and turned it into a concrete (glass and steel) reality.
A few years ago, when Rancho Cordovans were converting a vacant office building into a City Hall, they decided to house all three legs—city government, the local chamber of commerce and an umbrella group for nonprofits—in the same capacious office complex. A large, open foyer makes a welcoming entrance for the public, and a spiral staircase leads from the first floor to the second level, so if there is a problem or idea that requires a public-private-nonprofit partnership, it is a short walk from one sector to another.
I asked Shelly Blanchard, who heads the Cordova Community Council, how the three-legged stool idea is working out in practice. “It’s actually been more successful than we had anticipated,” she told me. “We are all in the same building, so it’s very common for people to run into each other over coffee or in the ladies room—and solve problems.”
Like other military towns in the post Cold War era, Rancho Cordova (circa 1990s) had a growing list of problems. After the local defense contractor downsized and Mather Air Force Base closed, a community known for its aviators and rocket scientists lost both its economic base and its main source of identity.
Being an unincorporated area of Sacramento County didn’t help. With no local government of its own, the community was hard pressed to deal with an array of challenges—aging housing stock, rundown apartment buildings, abandoned cars, illegal garbage dumps and a rising crime rate.
In the meantime, Rancho Cordova had become a gateway community for successive waves of immigrants and refugees—southeast Asians in the late 70s, Russian Christians, other Eastern Europeans when the Soviet Union imploded, and most recently, Latinos looking for construction work and inexpensive housing.
After a lengthy tussle with the county (and a serendipitous federal court ruling that made incorporation easier), the community voted to make Rancho Cordova California’s 287th city. Now they had a government. All they needed was a City Hall.
The idea of housing the three sectors together was originally proposed by City Manager Ted Gaebler, a co-author with David Osborne of the seminal book, Reinventing Government. But as Vice Mayor David Sander recently explained it to me, it was also a natural outgrowth of the fact that during the unincorporated years the community council and the chamber had served as a kind of substitute government. It also fits the local leadership style, he said, which is “not silo-oriented, but matrix and team-driven.”
It seems to be a classic “win-win” solution. Since City Hall opened up, the Rancho Cordova Chamber of Commerce has become a much stronger organization. The chamber had been on the brink of dissolution, but now membership is growing and the budget has gone from red to black. The community council organizes regular community celebrations and gives advice and planning assistance to community groups and nonprofits.
The new municipal building is considered a model of innovation and sustainable design, complete with LEED “green” certification. It has a “community board room” where nonprofits and civic groups can enjoy the use of flat screen projection and wireless internet to make meetings more interesting and productive.
The only downside to the arrangement, notes Sander, is that the people who tend to be distrustful of government anyway wonder whether the arrangement isn’t a little too cozy. They worry that decisions are being made privately behind closed doors.
On the other hand, the doors aren’t exactly closed. City Hall has become something of a social hub. Residents use it for baby showers, weddings, graduation parties, Eagle Scout ceremonies and memorial services. Rental rates are kept low to be affordable for families.
“It’s really more of a civic center than a city hall,” says Shelly Blanchard.” It’s the heartbeat of our community.”
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will be appearing every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.