“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites.” (Edmund Burke)
Meghan Sprager resigned her position as Executive Director of the BID last week, citing a hostile environment and calling out the bullying and lack of civil discourse that permeates our downtown business district.
I was deeply saddened by Meghan’s resignation. I have worked closely with her on many projects over the last year, and greatly admired her passion, commitment and sense of fairness in regards to the downtown. I feel we are losing an invaluable ally and asset with her resignation and she will be very hard to replace.
She is only the latest in a line of Executive Directors that have also resigned their positions with the BID. What separates her from her predecessors is that she had the strength and courage to stand up for herself and others; publically identifying the problem she has dealt with firsthand herself as well as hearing about it from those of us (business owners) who had turned to her and the BID for help as we experienced it ourselves and sought means to stop it.
The bullying and lack of civil discourse is not an isolated incident at the BID, nor is it only directed at Meghan. It was brought up as an issue at a WDBA meeting last February where many members (myself included) spoke up. I have been the target of bullying myself, and in my role as vice president (in charge of membership) for the WDBA, I hear about it from other business owners on an almost weekly basis.
It is not just rumor and innuendo, it is fact. Ignoring it will not make it go away. The behavior, especially from those elected and/or appointed to positions of leadership within the downtown, is nothing short of reprehensible – whether they are guilty of the behavior themselves or whether they stand by silently, doing nothing to intervene; allowing it to continue unabated.
Please do not misunderstand my intent in coming forward and speaking out. This is not meant as a personal attack against any individual(s), organization or the downtown. I am simply following my own personal conscience and doing what I believe to be the right thing in the current situation. My husband and I own a home in Waukesha, we are active volunteers in our community and we both love and support the downtown as a whole. I, as a business owner, am a regular contributor (in both time and money) of the downtown events. I love the “community feel” of the downtown and being a part of it which is why, when I decided to open a retail business, I chose downtown Waukesha over other locations. But, I am also a business woman with a substantial investment to protect. The current downtown environment is more conducive to further divide and animosity than it is to unity and cohesiveness – and a vibrant, thriving and solvent downtown.
I will admit this is a complex situation, and I do not envy those in positions to address it. There is no question that those engaging in the bullying and/or hostile behaviors now being brought to light have also worked hard (and in some cases tirelessly) for the downtown and fully deserve credit for their time, talents and dedication. We have many distinctions, accolades and events to be proud of – and I certainly do not want to minimize or negate any of those many contributions.
But it is not just a select few individuals that make up the downtown, nor is it just the events. The current “renaissance” of downtown is a result of all its parts – and will only continue with all business and property owners working together towards a common goal.
That is why, in my opinion, we must look openly and honestly at the problem, despite how uncomfortable or unpopular it may be, in order to find a solution that will ultimately bring us back together. Leaders are appointed or elected to serve - not just a few and not just special or segregated interests. The example of behavior necessary to reunite the downtown must come from its leadership first and foremost – even if that means having the “tough” conversations in an open forum where all sides can feel heard and represented. When the leadership can no longer fairly represent all factions (for whatever reason) or no longer be effective in their style of leadership, or are guilty of divisive behavior (covertly or overtly) themselves, it creates a no-win situation with little hope for any future compromise, resolution or reparation.
In closing, I would like to reiterate that this is not an isolated incident. There are many business owners in the downtown who can and are willing to substantiate Meghan’s assessment of the hostile environment, lack of civil discourse and bullying in a sincere desire to work towards an equally empowered resolution. For most of us, (and I feel qualified to say this based on the many conversations I’ve had with other business owners) this is not about taking sides, having power and control, or being right or wrong. The majority of us want the conflict to end so unity can be restored; freeing us to focus on growing not only our own personal businesses, but also the downtown’s attraction potential for the mutual benefit of all concerned.
All we need are leaders who are willing to let that happen and the forum for the start of a conversation that is long overdue.
I respectfully thank you for allowing me to express my views.