Nagging needed to make community planning a reality

Saturday, May 17, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:48 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Columbia sure doesn’t look recession-proof any more. Several articles in the Missourian make that clear.

It used to be that we claimed, and demonstrated, our town’s economic security on the basis of the Big Three — the university, the hospitals and the insurance industry. Well, we’re still educating (in fact, university enrollment is higher than ever and headed up), we’re still getting sick, and we’re still insuring ourselves against the vagaries of life.

These days, however, a fourth economic force is letting us down. That’s not all bad. The force is residential development, the Chamber of Commerce term for the sprawl that surrounds us with hundreds of new apartments and all those glistening subdivisions on the edge of the city. It’s the force that has dominated our local government and politics to the chagrin of those of us who’ve been crying slow down.

The slow-down has arrived. Over the past 10 days or so, the Missourian has published the numbers. Taxable sales in Columbia fell by $4 million last year, and they show no sign of turning around so far in 2008. That translates, of course, to less revenue for city and county government. County Auditor June Pitchford told the Missourian that sales tax income rose less than 1 percent last year and looks to be half that this year.

It’s not that all those students, patients and insurance agents have stopped consuming. The big decrease comes from the development industry. Construction employment in the county actually fell in 2007. The number of single-family construction permits dropped by 2,866, and the value of single-family homes built was down by $50 million.

At the risk of upsetting the development council, I’m going to argue that this is an opportunity rather than a disaster. My reasoning isn’t novel, but it’s worth repeating. What this not-quite-a-recession gives us is the time to catch our collective breath and make some long-overdue decisions. As our elected leaders have proved, it’s hard to plan in the midst of a boom. It’s easier to say yes than no.

Now that we can hear ourselves think over the roar of the bulldozers, let’s do that ­— think, I mean. We can start with the results of the “visioning” process. As I recall from the day the chief visionaries presented their work to community leaders, all those concerned emphasized that what they had was the broadest picture ever drawn of what we citizens want our community to be.

The vision was one of controlled — you might even call it smart — growth, with economic development replacing residential sprawl as our goal and the preservation of green space and farm land as high priorities. I hear that City Manager Bill Watkins and his staff are putting the finishing touches on what will be the muscle behind the vision.

I also recall that when I asked Jerry Wade, an expert in community planning and my councilman, what was needed to turn vision into reality, his reply was one word: “Nagging.”

Call me a nag, but I’m hoping ­— and urging — that the City Council’s new smart growth majority seize this opportunity. The numbers say lemons. Let’s make lemonade.

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