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What We Dare

May 3, 2019 | Bottom Right Box, Voices of Davidson

(Note: this piece was contributed by Connie Wessner, local resident of over 20 years and former member of the Davidson Town Board.)

We moved my mother to the Purcell Wing at The Pines last week. Wrapping our heads around all that we and she have lost has been a struggle. And yet in the midst of our sadness, I find myself thinking about my family’s great fortune in calling this town our home and our undeniable gains even in the face of sadness. Three generations of us have had our lives irrevocably shaped over the last two decades by the steadfast embrace of this community. We’ve worked; we’ve learned; we’ve grown; we’ve served; we’ve laughed and cried; we’ve been tested; and we’ve thrived. And, perhaps most importantly—especially last week—we’ve learned to dare in the face of uncertainty and fear, knowing the people around us have our backs.

That’s the inherent generosity that sits at the heart of our town’s embrace. Every member of my family knows first-hand the willingness of our neighbors to share the figurative and literal wealth of this community. We are the beneficiaries of support and caring and connection offered unconditionally. These kindnesses engender a hopefulness in this community, even when its reach falls far short of the mark. And to be fair, we know that the focus, substance, and scope of Davidson’s efforts to connect are not without their imperfections. Still, my experience has been that our collective intentions as a town have always been rooted in authentic compassion and a commitment to goodness.

The people who landed here before anyone in my family—either by birth or by some providential journey similar to our own—seem determined to set an example for those of us who follow in blazing our own best trail to contributing to Davidson’s rich civic life. There is no shortage of opportunity. In Davidson we find an abundance of boards and congregations to be joined, services to be volunteered, communal experiences to be shared,  and common spaces to be stewarded. And in the full confidence of that abundance, our neighbors also give us space enough to feel authentic in the choices we make about how much of ourselves to turn over to the larger life of the town.

Civic kindness, civic courage

Kindness centers a community. A sense of daring, grounded by that reliable center, moves a community forward and lends substance to its generosity. To stand back and look around at the foundations of this community and the deep roots that run beneath them is to consider the risk that our neighbors have taken time and again on behalf of each other. Where other communities settle for generalized measures of quality of life, in Davidson we have insisted on our own, more rigorous standards because of the strong commitments we develop to one another as neighbors who dare to act because we believe so deeply in our collective strength.

Our town library

For that reason, we are home not merely to a branch of the county library system, but to a town library that helps set the tone and the expectations for the entire system’s obligations to the citizens who fund it. Each time the county has mistakenly and willingly overlooked how critical the Davidson Library is to our civic vitality, we have responded loudly and clearly. We’ve backed our response with tangible investments in the branch, including a land donation from the College, construction and operating funds to close financing gaps, a sizeable and independent endowment, and an unwavering commitment to positioning the branch as an irreplaceable support to the central library, rather than a drain on its resources. Access to lifelong learning is central to the dignity of every Davidsonian, and we link arms as a community whenever and however that access is threatened. Kindness runs a book drive in the face of those threats. Daring insists that the library itself will not just survive but thrive.

A retirement center

In the last weeks I’ve had a first-hand look at a similar good wrought by civic leaders who struck out on their own to build a life-care community that fully aspires to the values embedded in the larger life of this town. Thirty years in, The Pines very presence might somehow feel inevitable to newer arrivals to Davidson, but closer examination underscores the leap of faith that birthed not just another retirement community but a microcosm of Davidson for citizens entering one of the most vulnerable parts of their lives. Pines residents retain the same claim to dignity we each do in civic life to function as teachers and mentors, as students and stakeholders, and as fans and congregants and volunteers. The ability we’ve honed as a town to anticipate an unmet need and to will a solution into existence speaks not just to an endemic kindness but to an audacity, insisting that we collectively have the will, the nerve, and the heart to settle for nothing less.

An internet provider

My two decades in Davidson have taught me that civic kindness can be a fleeting nod to virtue if it doesn’t free a community to dare on behalf of its future. And yet, it has been oh-so-much harder to make the case for daring when the target is our municipally-owned internet provider. MI-Connection, now Continuum, lacks the quaintness of a little town library and the humaneness of securing the dignity of old people, but it does share something in common with the community initiatives I’ve described. That we can even consider putting it on the market is due entirely to civic leaders who dared in the face of uncertainty and more than a little reluctance to take that chance on the part of many of us.

Since we’re entertaining the notion of selling it because someone else might now think the system has value, it seems reasonable to take a look at how we got to this point. Back in the early part of the 2000s when the system was last held privately, the online experience in this town was dismal and getting worse.

Too much rain? The service blinked out.

Connection speed? Laughable.

The previous owner had declared bankruptcy, amid a range of corruption scandals. The most likely buyer had already made clear that it had no plans to upgrade the substandard infrastructure to which residents and businesses here were yoked. That’s what the private market offered us 12 years ago: substandard service and an unenviable position subsidizing competition in the rapidly developing Internet market in Charlotte.

So why should we have dared presume that a tiny municipality could outperform its commercial counterparts at the helm of an outdated and faltering cable company? Many of us were convinced that the new MI-Connection was destined to bleed our town dry.

Five years in, though, investments in the system, painful as they were to the overall Town budget, began to change the landscape. MI-Connection fiber upgrades and the rising connection speeds that went with those improvements led national providers like ATT and Google to reverse themselves and rush to lay their own fiber networks in this area. We started to attract new businesses to town, including ValSpar and MSC. Residents began to have a choice of providers for a full range of communications and information services. And whether the decision to purchase the system was (or ever will be) popular, the fact remains: we dug the system out of the hole the last private owners left it (and us) in.

And that’s why I hope our Town Board will take a second look before making a decision about Continuum. The service we have today is the product of our community’s willingness to refuse to settle for answers someone outside of town wants us desperately to accept. We’ve dared when it comes to advocating for our local schools and our library. We’ve dared in the face of pressure from builders and saved green space for future generations at Fisher Farm and Absersham and along our lake shore when other towns were leaping at the chance to let developers add to the tax base. We’ve refused to settle for run of the mill answers to affordable housing, to elder care, and to neighborhood design.

Before we rush in to keep a promise made back when we were at the mercy of somebody else’s stockholders, I hope we’ll consider a choice that reflects what we’ve learned we can do together rather than the philosophies that keep us apart.

Davidson is a great community because we have dared to make it so. That is not an achievement we should ever forget because it is what sustains us through good times and bad.


Editors’ note: The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the various authors in Voices of Davidson do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of News of Davidson.

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