Let’s take a look at an “ugly” civic campaign – the 1997 Regional Renaissance Initiative. This was one effort that failed (by an enormous margin to boot), but it failed in a completely successful way.
Let me explain. The RRI was an effort to levy a 0.5% additional sales tax in 11 counties in southwestern PA. The revenue from that tax would be used to fund updates to the region’s aging infrastructure, support development, expand the David Lawrence Convention Center, and – most famously – provide for the construction of two new stadiums on Pittsburgh’s North Shore. It was dubbed the “stadium tax” by its opponents and, for better or worse, that’s the label that stuck. The other counties couldn’t be bothered to fund stadiums in Pittsburgh that wouldn’t directly benefit them. And, in a stinging defeat, the initiative even managed to fail on the ballot in Allegheny County itself, where the stadiums and convention center expansion would be constructed.
Yet when I say that the RRI was a successful failure, I mean just that, if only for one simple reason: the RRI got the conversation started about updating Pittsburgh’s most public faces and keeping our iconic teams in the region. Less than a year later, the city’s Plan B proposal to secure $809 million for the construction of two new stadiums and expansion of the convention center was successful, with the Pirates and the Steelers pledging to remain in Pittsburgh until at least 2031.
Plan B weathered the same criticisms that plagued the RRI (including being dubbed “Scam B”), but ultimately benefited from the RRI’s recognition that something had to be done to revitalize the North Shore and preserve two enormous economic engines in the region. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s now difficult to imagine the wave of development that has greeted the North Shore in subsequent years without the construction of the two iconic stadiums.
Ultimately, failure is the name of the game for many civic campaigns. Many sputter out or simply disappear because the timing isn’t right. But if the RRI can teach us anything, it’s that a civic campaign can lose the battle – and still win the war.