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:
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.