Way back in December 2006, I joined several hundred good citizens in the first step of the visioning process that's intended to produce, eventually, both a general plan and specific steps toward making our community what we want it to be. It was a productive, inspiring experience.
Thursday evening in the beautifully renovated Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts was the most recent of those steps, an event billed as a "Vision Showcase." Representatives of our city government, the public schools, the library and the colleges came prepared for a crowd of visionaries. No more than a double handful of citizens showed up. For most of the three hours I hung around, the would-be providers of information outnumbered the potential recipients.
The platter of free cookies remained nearly full. The unpaid but excellent musicians who took advantage of the theatre's new professional-quality sound system played mostly to empty seats. The volunteer discussion leaders had to talk mainly to each other.
Of course, some of the usual suspects were in evidence. Recidivist school Superintendent Jim Ritter worked the sparse crowd, providing a reminder of why everybody likes him so much. Mayor for Life Darwin Hindman shook every hand in sight. But there weren't many for him to shake.
And that's too bad. Maybe, as police officer Mike Hayes suggested, Columbians just aren't inclined to attend meetings unless there's a perception of crisis. Or maybe, as one of the organizers offered, it was the threat of bad weather and competition from the televised entertainment of the season's first NFL game and the season's last political convention.
For me, in spite of the warm blues played by the Megan Boyer Band and the free cookies, it was a disappointment. I couldn't help remembering the warning from Councilman Jerry Wade when the visioning committee presented its report to the city's leaders last winter. He pointed out that the key to translating a vision into reality is the ongoing process. He stressed the importance of public nagging.
Tim Teddy, who heads the city planning department, told me Thursday that he's ready to get started. Jerry Wade's new progressive majority on the City Council has found some money to pay for the work. That, it seems to me, is necessary but not sufficient.
If the citizens leave it to the professionals, if we don't sustain our involvement and even our nagging, we're likely to wind up with a document instead of a vision. The difference between the two would be the difference between enforcing the building code and redeveloping downtown.
I came away from that first gathering nearly two years ago thinking that I'd seen the best of Columbia. This thing just might work, I thought. Thursday I went home less inspired and more worried. Where was everybody? Has visioning become just another assignment for the staff? I hope not.
The stated goal of the visioning process is "a connected, informed, engaged community." Thursday was a reminder that we're not there yet.