Burlingame and the Panama Canal
August 18, 2008
The past sometimes provides unexpected and useful parallels. As my eighth-grade teacher Edward P. Benton used to say, “We study history to make better decisions in the present and improve our future.” No really, he said that. I remember it like it was, well, 33 years ago …
Today’s history lesson.
In 1907, U.S. Army Colonel George Washington Goethals, an engineer, assumed command of the U.S. construction project at the Panama Canal.
His first order as commanding officer was to stop digging.
Recognizing the unsanitary conditions of the site for what they were ” a clear and present danger to his project and his workers ” he knew that continuing was futile until he constructed a sanitary, livable community out of the septic, malaria-ridden jungle.
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This historic event provides an important lesson, larger than any one project, for Aspen’s housing program. It’s time to stop digging and build a city government with the skills and capacity to meet the complex needs of its community. Such a time comes in the life-cycle of every organization. Recognizing that time for what it is, and acting on that need is the hard part. I think Mr. Benton would be proud of the council for taking the first step by delaying a vote on a bond issue for Phase II of the Burlingame project.
The city has taken to heart the advice of their independent performance auditors. Page 8 of the Alvarez and Marsal report recommends a four- to six-month timeline for restructuring the city’s systems and processes for major housing project development and management. This is a step in the right direction. At this time in its history, stepping back to retrench is the right first step for the city.
In the end Colonel Goethals and his workers completed the Panama Canal a year ahead of schedule. They did this in spite of not turning one spade of dirt on the project for the first several months of his command; proving it’s not how you begin, rather how you finish that defines your legacy and, most importantly, provides the lasting benefit for those that you serve.