The Chestertown Armory debate always seemed like a roller coaster that no one really intended to ride. Since the town started considering the long-term use of the Newman Armory in 2007, it has been the source of unprecedented passion, hardcore politics (at least for this town), and even a little bit of silly behavior.
The mitigating news is that most of these highly visible public land transfers are extremely contentious for communities, large and small. From the large military bases to smaller, state-owned reserve posts, people and organizations have used almost every tool of advocacy, including the media, the courts, and civil disobedience (the now famous UC Berkeley’s tree-sitters of 2008 come to mind) to rally support for their positions on land use.
So by comparison, Chestertown has come to a remarkably happy ending sooner, and with less bloodshed, than most. And one wonderful benefit from all this combustion is that both the college and town have found a renewed trust in their intertwined futures.
In the end, the Armory agreement does not represent a successful negotiation, a flusher balance sheet, or public relations points. Rather, it is a reaffirmation that both institutions need and trust each other.
As the conservative critic Francis Fukuyama has elegantly written, trust is the cultural key to prosperity. It has a profound impact on the shape and nature of economic transactions and institutions. In “high trust” societies, people are able to build strong relationships outside their tribe or organization, and therefore thrive. In “low trust” societies they are disinclined to trust people or institutions outside their primary affiliation, and therefore face declining opportunities for growth.
In the Fukuyama’s model, culture is the ultimate determinant of economic life, impacting the choices people and organizations make through the matrix of understanding and obligation. In that light, it was extremely heartwarming to hear of the Armory agreement last weekend.
It is hoped that as the town and college work to complete the property transfer over the next several months, this time can also been used to stimulate even more discussion on ways to effectively collaborate on such challenging projects as rails to trails, Stepney Manor, the waterfront, and most critically, our struggling downtown commerce.
In the meantime, the Visitors and Governors and President Reiss should be thanked for their steadfast support of Chestertown. And the Town Council and Mayor Bailey should be thanked for their steadfast support of Washington College. This agreement is a very good moment for our community.