Politically active: To be or not to be?

By Ken Presley

I still remember the guy, at least his last name — Parrish. I can see him in my mind as the TV reporter stuck the microphone in front of him. Reluctantly, he spoke; but first some background.

North Fulton County in the late 1970s and early 1980s was still at best a bedroom community of Atlanta but not quite a suburb. There were many farms and it was still a place where someone could buy a plot of land and have a house built with maybe a few acres to boot. People were usually trying to get away from either Atlanta or its ever-sprawling suburbs.

Old timers quickly recalled how North Fulton was originally Milton County and had nothing to do with Fulton County or Atlanta. Faced with financial woes in the early 1930s and only one paved road, they merged with Fulton County separated by Roswell, GA, which belonged to nearby Cobb County. Negotiations ensued and Roswell was soon turned over to Fulton County to create a “land bridge.” You can see it on a map today.

A few decades later those in North Fulton who enjoyed the peaceful life regretted the merger. Talk of secession was popular but would never be. A four lane state highway went up and by the early 1980s the developers saw gold and the annexing game started. Two small cities of Roswell and Alpharetta, which were towns only a few years earlier, began annexing and many of those that thought they were out of the reach of city taxes and other encumbrances like zoning laws found their tranquil world was about to change. That brings me to Mr. Parrish.

About to be annexed

Apparently Mr. Parrish enjoyed the country life and discovered he was about to be annexed into the fair city of Alpharetta and decided to attend a town hall meeting to voice his opposition to being annexed. After the town hall meeting the reporter snagged Mr. Parrish for his comment that I remember so clearly: “I don’t want any more or any less, I just want to be left alone.”

Although poignant, one reason I remember Mr. Parrish’s comment was that I knew he was going to lose. Politicians, city planners and developers had worked out their plans long before Mr. Parrish saw the zoning signs go up. There were meetings, official and otherwise. Mr. Parrish was late to a game he likely wanted no part of. Nevertheless, he was in the game and he lost.

Bus and motorcoach operators are generally a great bunch of folks. The best part of my job is working with them, often admiring the businesses they have built, many of them multigenerational. Even in tough economies, like today, they find ways to not only survive but also thrive. Over time, many if not most bus and motorcoach operators I have met along the way remind me of Mr. Parrish. Good folks, minding their own business and just want to be left alone. This is not only improbable; it is costing them opportunities and ultimately money.

Like it or not, the transportation of passengers is a political business and one that local, state and Federal governments have great interest. Although no longer economically regulated, politicians, regulators, planners and others are weaving plans — plans that can and will ultimately affect every bus and motorcoach company in the nation.

Don’t wait until there is an issue

If you have not attended a local transportation planning meeting lately, spoken with a state legislator, or written your U.S. Senator, you may find yourself behind the proverbial eight ball. Waiting until there is an issue is often just too late, especially in a business that we already “share” with the government. Operators who begin to engage the political system are often surprised to discover new business flowing their way and opportunities they otherwise would have likely missed.

So what’s an operator to do? Here’s my beginner’s list:

• Attend your local transit meetings.

• Attend a Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting.

• Join your state association and take an active role.

• You have great story to tell. Write your State Representative and Senator. Tell them how you have invested financially in your community and about the services you provide and generally who use them. Tell them about the jobs you have created. If you have a state lobbyist, copy them on the letter and advise them of any contacts or responses you may have.

• Financially support the elections of those that support you. A $50 or a $100 campaign contribution from a constituent goes a long way.

• Join your national association (I’m partial to the United Motorcoach Association).

• Write your U.S. House Representative and Senator. Again, tell them how you have invested financially in your community and about the services you provide and generally who use them.

• Tell them about the jobs you have created. Copy your national association on the letter and advise them of any contacts or responses you may have. Contribute to their PAC.

If ever there was a time to be engaged, this is it. The stakes are high: your business.

Ken Presley is Vice President of Industry Relations for the United Motorcoach Association, Alexandria, VA. [ www.uma.org ]