Seeking revival, American cities turn to consultants

by Vault Consulting Editors | January 13, 2011

  • My Vault

Today, officials in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania announced the hiring of a small consulting outfit to formulate a plan to rescue the ailing capital city, The Wall Street Journal reports. Novak Consulting Group, a strategy consultancy that works with public sector clients, is tasked with addressing the city's whopping $288 million debt burden—four times the city's annual budget—in no less than 90 days, officials say.

Complex debt, political infighting, baggage from failed rejuvenation projects—you name it, Harrisburg has it. While this economically-depressed city (where a third of the population lives in poverty) has its share of unique problems, it isn't alone in its plight. Take Detroit for example; perhaps the nation's most maligned metropolis, Detroit has long served as a poster child for how not to run a city. "Whenever we need a metaphor for urban failure, it's Detroit," says David Feehan, a turnaround consultant at Civitas Consulting in Washington, DC.

Feehan knows Detroit's maladies inside-out. As is happening now in Harrisburg, Detroit's financial woes grew so overwhelming in the mid-1990's that the city government was forced to look outside the public sector for a solution. They found Feehan, a prominent revitalization consultant, and tasked him with ushering in a renaissance for a district in the Motor City's bleak downtown. Fast forward more than a decade, and witness a "revitalized" downtown. "Detroit has made so many strides in the last 10 or 15 years," Feehan says. "Most people don't know about it."

So what did Feehan and Civitas do to spark an enthusiastic revival amidst some of Detroit's darkest days? What takeaways can Novak and Co. apply to the turnaround effort at Harrisburg?

"For 30 years or so, every mayor and business leader wanted to find that magic solution, that silver bullet," Feehan asserts; leaders wanted to see their city's problems solved by a one-off, large-scale project like the construction of a stadium, a convention center or the like. Major efforts like these aren't always advisable, Feehan notes, because of the high cost of success and even higher cost of failure. Instead, the Civitas Consulting head urges cities to focus on the small things; things like a delicious meal, a beautiful stand of trees, or a welcoming handshake and smile are what truly make the difference, he argues. "It's all about providing people with positive, memorable experiences," Feehan says.

And he knows. At the helm of Civitas, Feehan has orchestrated turnaround efforts in Detroit, Burlington, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, San Antonio and more, with positive results piling up upon every engagement.

The consultants at Novak Consulting Group will need all the experience they can muster when their work in Harrisburg officially kicks off, likely within the month. If they're wise, they'll follow Feehan's advice and shun big, silver-bullet projects in favor of a comprehensive restructuring, one which seeks to reinvigorate small business and instill an attractive culture of hospitality among residents and officials alike.

For more information:
WSJ
Burlington Free Press

Filed Under: Consulting

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