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GEORGE KENNEDY: Columbia has hit the awkward stage of its growth

Thursday, June 30, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

A couple of weeks ago, First Ward Councilman Fred Schmidt likened our newest parking garage to a teenager — awkward and misunderstood but with some promise of improvement.

I wonder whether a version of that metaphor applies to Columbia as a whole. Here’s what I mean:

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Our town has clearly outgrown its past as a university-centered village. Some of us old-timers wax nostalgic for that growth stage, just as parents tend to remember how cute their 2-year-old was while forgetting the behavioral traits that earned the “terrible twos” label.

When I came to Columbia as a student in the early '60s, it was a slightly overgrown village. When I came back in the mid '70s, that was still pretty true. We proudly called ourselves a university town, and in truth, there wasn’t all that much else here. When the campus effectively closed in May, the village went into hibernation.

You could pick your spot to park downtown. Traffic? What traffic? Of course, we had hardly any decent restaurants, far fewer shopping options, not much in the way of culture and not even many Walmarts.

I’d argue that Columbia, despite its occasional traffic jams, its downtown parking hassles and its infrastructure problems, is a much more interesting and, in many ways, more attractive place to live than it was 30 years ago. Teenagers tend to be more interesting people than toddlers.

But now we get to the awkward and frustrating part. Take transportation, for example.

A village doesn’t need much in the way of a bus system, and we didn’t have much. A real city has frequent service to just about any area, with maybe a subway or light rail component. We have buses, all right – now tastefully covered in advertising. But they don’t serve the whole city, don’t run all that often and quit long before many people’s need to travel is really finished for the day. It’s the best an adolescent community can afford.

There’s also our airport. I listened recently to an interesting discussion of our air travel prospects and problems on the “Intersection” program on KBIA/91.3 FM. (Actually, I watched, too, on KBIA.org.) All parties agreed that we need more service than we have. All parties also seemed in agreement that to add an alternative to Memphis, we’ll have to lure an airline with financial inducements.

Columbia’s too big to be satisfied with the little planes that link, for example, Kirksville or Cape Girardeau with St. Louis. But it’s not big enough to land a destination like Chicago or Dallas. We’re at that awkward in-between age.

How about downtown? A village doesn’t have boutique hotels or convention centers. Real cities have both. We’ve got sketches and wishes. Will today’s Columbia actually support the two upgraded downtown hotels we’re ready to subsidize with tax breaks? I guess we’ll see. What we won’t see any time soon is the convention center hopefully penciled in by the latest downtown planning consultant.

And have I mentioned Trader Joe’s? A good many demographic determinists of my acquaintance confidently predicted that once we reached the magic 100,000 population, a Trader Joe’s and maybe even a Whole Foods would be sure to follow. We’ve hit the number, but so far we’ve got only a Hooters and a White Castle to show for it. The real magic number remains elusive.

As regular readers know, I’m not one who thinks bigger is necessarily and always better. I do think growth is inevitable for Columbia. I intend to suggest that it doesn’t have to be all bad, if it’s planned and if it’s paid for by the developers and the newcomers who’ll crowd our already inadequate streets and schools.

Smart growth or dumb growth, it’s up to us. To stretch the metaphor, the good news is that more teenagers end up on campus than in jail.

NOW IT’S VACATION TIME – your vacation from me, I mean. With any luck, I’ll be back in August.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Comments

HUSAM ABDUL-KAFI June 30, 2011 | 1:54 a.m.

why do we need a wholefoods or trader joe's when we have World Harvest?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith June 30, 2011 | 5:45 a.m.

Well presented. In the early 1960s downtown businesses all closed at Noon or by 1 PM on Saturdays during the summer; shopping opportunities in Columbia outside of downtown were pretty much non-existent.

I'm pleased, George, that you are not one of those who equates bigger as necessarily being better. It often isn't.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield June 30, 2011 | 7:12 a.m.

"Columbia’s too big to be satisfied with the little planes that link, for example, Kirksville or Cape Girardeau with St. Louis. But it’s not big enough to land a destination like Chicago or Dallas."

As recently as 2000, we had jet service to Chicago and Dallas. At the time, we also had 24,000 fewer residents.

"A real city has frequent service to just about any area, with maybe a subway or light rail component."

If you've lived -- not visited, but lived for at least a couple of years -- in a major city, you know that's rarely the case.

(Report Comment)
Dave Overfelt June 30, 2011 | 8:59 a.m.

Kind of a weird analogy. I think you make a mistake in putting age and size together and should instead focus on planning and geography if you are interested in changes in size. The changes you have seen in the City of Columbia over your lifetime aren't some natural process that leads toward a bigger city (many much larger cities west of us were incorporated much later), in fact, ALL growth (or non growth) is planned growth. The policies we apply to the landscape give this city its shape.

(Report Comment)
Shraddha Sankhe July 1, 2011 | 9:26 a.m.

I'm not sure if I am even eligible to comment on anything about the city of Columbia-I'm from Mumbai, India, soon to move in to the city in discussion as an international student of Journalism.

I remember the Visa Officer at the US Consulate in Mumbai telling me-"Oh, there's nothing much in Missouri. But Columbia is really good!"

Perhaps perception is not as dynamic as the changing scenarios of the city that essentially breathes good media and education avenues. Adolescent "international" city? Bring it on!

Just saying: With respect to higher studies, I know at least six Asian-Indians (including me) who chose Columbia over NYC.

Remember, half of us are living Walter Williams' dream!

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 1, 2011 | 1:39 p.m.

You should feel free to to express yourself as you see fit. There are some rules, but they're not onerous.

We wonder what visa officers at the U. S. embassy in Mumbai tell prospective students from Mumbai about Rolla, Missouri. It must be damned good, because we've had many engineering students from India. Some of our best undergraduate and graduate students have been Indian.

Since World War II we have educated at least two generations from the same families in India and at least three generations from families in Latin America.

[Most Americans don't realize that an institute in India is universally recogniaed as having the best undergraduate engineering programs in the world - FREE to students who quality! It's probably because American media haven't discovered the situation.]

(Report Comment)

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