Grassroots activist groups make a difference in the area
Published: Monday, January 2, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 9:19 p.m.
Carol Thomas and Connie Canney speed up when they near the old shed, peering through the chain-link fence to assess their progress.
"Oh, they painted!" Canney said, beaming at the good news.
The sisters, along with the rest of NUBA - or Neighborhoods United for a Better Alachua - have spent the past two years raising money and petitioning the City Commission to transform the heartpine shed into a community center.
Their mission is new and unique. The niche they occupy in the city - the community-level political action group - has been filled by many before them. In every city hall in every municipality, there's seems to be a group with an acronym for a name looking to affect change.
Any given group's success or failure depends on its ability to control the way its cause is discussed, its grassroots support, its resources and alliances, and the way it works within the larger structure of its community.
Alachua County is chock-full of community-level interest groups.
In the City of Alachua, NUBA shares the stage with the Alachua Leadership Alliance-Citizens Helping Us All, which stalled the construction of a Wal-Mart distribution center with a lawsuit against the city regarding its approval of the warehouse.
In Micanopy, a group calling itself the Micanopy Area Chamber of Commerce successfully petitioned the Town Commission to adopt design guidelines for the U.S. 441 business district - a tactic that led Dollar General to withdraw an application to build a retail store there.
But when it comes to area interest groups, the West Putnam Lake Region Association has netted the equivalent of the Holy Grail.
The group fought Florida Rock Industries' proposal earlier this year to build a sand mine in western Putnam County, and won.
Group President Phillip Cathlino chalks up the group's success to fighting for an issue that resonated with a large group - more than 700 people attended some public hearings to speak against the mine, Cathlino said.
Michael T. Heaney, an assistant professor in the University of Florida's Department of Political Science, said Cathlino is likely correct.
Demonstrating that a group represents the majority of the community is essential to getting city officials' attention, Heaney said.
"They have to convey that they speak for a substantial body of population," said Heaney, who specializes in interest groups. "The more they are able to convey an image that they represent a broad grassroots movement in the community, the stronger they are."
Also, Cathlino said, having facts and finances to back up the group's passion helped it be more effective. Like many other groups, Cathlino's organization doesn't require dues. But through donations and fund-raising activities, it raised about $40,000 to pay for experts to testify against Florida Rock's extensive team of experts.
"That passion and compatibility of people in the group can mean a lot," Cathlino said. "If you get along well, even when things get tough, you can work through it."
'Good cop, bad cop'
Alachua, a city of about 6,700 people located northwest of Gainesville, is packed with community action groups.
None are more politicized than the Alachua Leadership Alliance-Citizens Helping Us All.
Its initials spell out ALACHUA, but the organization is known as the ALA, for short.
"Mention the ALA in Alachua, and right away, you've drawn a line," said Eileen McCoy, a group member and a former City Commission candidate. "You're either for them or against them."
The group earned respect from some and notoriety from others for suing the city over its approval of the Wal-Mart distribution center, among other battles.
At one time, two ALA members sat on the City Commission. But in the city's most recent election, McCoy lost to former mayor Gib Coerper.
McCoy said the ALA lost some steam when group members had to take time off to tend to family emergencies, and said it continued to lose momentum when some strong personalities in the group clashed.
Also, she said while the group originally had strong grassroots support, it has recently been unable to control the tone of debate in the city.
"The people who opposed us came out and were able to spin things in a way that frankly, wasn't true," McCoy said. "Regular people started to believe them, and that caused us to lose credibility."
Heaney said a group's ability to frame issues in a light that's positive to their cause is essential to its success. It has to effectively communicate its message by writing letters to the editor or putting out a newsletter, but also must tailor its message in a way that's not only true, but appealing to the people it's trying to reach.
"If a group called themselves 'Left-wing Wackos Against Progress in the Economy,' even though that might be what they are, they probably wouldn't be able to get anyone to meet with them," Heaney said. "They'd need a name that makes them more palatable to people in the community. A lot of it is just being smart about the way they talk about the issues."
Citizens for Alachua, a group of local business owners, recently assembled for causes similar to those championed by the ALA.
In a recent letter to the editor in The High Springs Herald, the group expressed concern about a Wal-Mart Supercenter proposed to be built in Alachua, saying the store could "overwhelm the family-oriented small-town character we all cherish."
Alachua Mayor Jean Calderwood said she hasn't had much experience with the group, but said she prefers tactics used by groups like Citizens for Alachua and NUBA to those used by the ALA, which she said has occasionally been offensive and intimidating to other city residents.
"I think the approach that's most likely to be effective is to approach the city officials in a constructive manner," Calderwood said. "Differences of opinion are fine - they're constructive and healthy. But to go about things in a destructive, divisive manner, as the ALA has in person and in writing - saying 'We're going to elect new officials, we're going to have the city audited' - that's not effective."
But Heaney said it's unlikely the ALA's tactics are behind the group's recent downfalls. He said in some places - urban northern cities, for example - aggressive tactics may be applauded.
Plus, he said there may be more to the ALA's apparent failures than meets the eye.
"Whether or not one group is effective or not really depends on the whole system of groups and political actors in a town," Heaney said. "For example, the ALA and the Citizens for Alachua may be doing sort of a 'good cop, bad cop' routine without knowing it. The ALA may be perceived as not doing well because city officials see them as being too aggressive, but if the (Citizens for Alachua) isn't too closely connected to the ALA, they may be able to benefit from them, because they are perceived as being more reasonable by comparison."
"Maybe it appears that Citizens for Alachua gets more done, or has more luck conversing with city officials, but really, they wouldn't get anything done without the ALA being more abrasive."
Members of Citizens for Alachua could not be reached for comment.
But NUBA members said there could be something to Heaney's theory.
"Perhaps they made a way for us," Thomas said, speaking of the ALA.
"I think that might be true," Canney said. "I have a lot of admiration for the things they want to do."
Both women said NUBA's success mostly had to do with the way they asked city commissioners to become involved with the center, emphasized their willingness to cooperate with city officials and refused to give up.
And the group has been effective. The community center's grand opening is slated for Jan. 16.
"I think sometimes (the city commissioners) thought we would probably flop," Thomas said. "And it hasn't been easy. The thing that has pulled us through is that we didn't ever think we would fail. That's probably the most important thing a group can have going for it."
Amy Reinink can be reached at 352-374-5088 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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