I cut out early at the end of day two of the Coös Symposium to race south on Route 16 to Berlin for the budget hearing. I felt I was leaving an abstraction of Coös County to go to Coös County, the real thing. I have to admit what I have missed most while at the Coös Symposium is the people that make up Coös County.
That may seem like a strange description, but the Symposium has been more a place to talk about solutions and strategies for remaking Coös than an opportunity to connect with the region. The makeup, I would estimate, is roughly one-half Coös residents and one-half outsiders like me. The conference lacks enough influence of the most important asset that makes the region special: its people. There is more creative energy and positivity than I usually encounter working in Berlin, but outsiders don’t have the uniquely Coös perspective that sets the region apart. It takes a critical mass of North Country residents to make the environment truly northern, and right now it’s still got the taste of southern.
I would love to see the symposium happen next time in Lancaster or Colebrook or Berlin, with the discussions held at restaurants and businesses and schools. I’d love to see this group interacting more with the residents of Coös, bringing their ideas, enthusiasm and solutions to the people who need them instead of keeping them cooped up inside grand hotels.
Let me make make myself clear: I love the discussions. But when I went to Berlin and spoke with a city councilor who had to turn down his invitation it became clear the glaring deficit in this model. He would have loved to have taken part, but he couldn’t make it because three days away is more than most people can manage. Like many enthusiastic Berlin residents, he has passion for the region, but he lacks the broad understanding of the issues that would enable him to better govern and promote the region. The conversations that have been happening at the Balsams would be perfect for him, but with a job, family and obligations he couldn’t manage it.
How many people could make that same argument? How easily does this model shed the participation of those who need to be most engaged: the next generation of leaders who are too busy living their lives to go for a vacation/workshop in the mountains.
How can the symposium better engage with Coös and those it purports to want to support? How can the event be made more accessible?
My pitch for next year: hold it in town. The conversations, connections and contributions this event can make are invaluable, but it would be better served if those conversations occured where the problems lie. Invite everyone, and try to connect with those least likely to see eye to eye. The energy from the conference is palpable, and that enthusiasm shouldn’t live just at the Balsams. What Coös really needs is a symposium infused into its being, something that can push the ball fast enough that Coös momentum starts to overtake itself.