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Joplin rolls out proposed tornado recovery plan

Thursday, January 12, 2012 | 8:32 p.m. CST

As new homes and rebuilt stores slowly return to a city devastated by a historic tornado, Joplin's civic, political and business leaders are nearing completion of a long-term plan to guide the recovery.

A citizens' advisory panel charged with leading those initial recovery efforts wants the city to create four new business districts that would also allow residents to live and shop nearby. They're urging the creation of a city committee that would ensure new construction meets certain design standards, including more landscaping to offset commercial projects and parking lots.

The Citizens Advisory Recovery Team is also recommending greater enforcement of nuisance codes, stepped-up efforts to encourage homeowners to buy property insurance and the construction of a medical school. And they want the city to hire a "master developer" who would oversee the rebuilding plan.

The group will present its work, the culmination of months of effort and multiple public meetings since the May 22 tornado, on Jan. 19 at Missouri Southern State University.

The Joplin City Council, school board and Chamber of Commerce, as well as the Board of Aldermen in neighboring Duquesne, will each discuss the recovery plan and individually consider whether to endorse the 21-page document.

"Recovery is broad," said Jane Cage, a Joplin business owner who helps lead the advisory panel. "It has to touch on almost every aspect of life in Joplin for us to succeed. ... We only really get one chance to do this right."

Some of the group's ideas echo suggestions made soon after the nation's deadliest tornado in six decades hit southwest Missouri, killing 161 people and destroying thousands of homes and businesses and other structures on the city's south side, such as an increased emphasis on energy-efficient homes — a goal the panel hopes to meet with a "pilot neighborhood" that would serve as a green-construction model for the rest of the city.

Other plans also incorporate ideas summarized in a 60-page binder of public comments on rebuilding Joplin, such as putting Franklin Technical Center and Joplin High School, both of which were destroyed, back under one roof.

And some are decidedly ambitious, including the creation of an arts and entertainment district and expanded farmers' market. There is no price tag listed in the plan, although Cage said the city hopes to offset much of those costs with federal Community Development Block Grants, state support and private philanthropy.

"It's still a living document," she said. "Things are going to change over time."

State Rep. Bill White, R-Joplin, said he sees signs of the recovery throughout some of the hardest-hit areas. A Home Depot store where seven people died during the tornado when its walls caved in reopened this week. The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently announced it will provide $20 million to help rebuild St. John's Regional Medical Center, which took a direct hit from the twister.

The city has since issued nearly 4,000 building permits to homeowners, according to City Manager Mark Rohr. And the Missouri Housing Development Commission has committed about $100 million in tax credits and loans over the coming decade to spark the construction of low-to-moderate income rental units and single-family, owner-occupied homes in the Joplin area — with more likely to come.

"Things are definitely looking up," White said. "Now is the time. The pace of private recovery is going to pressure those redevelopment plans."

The tornado flattened several neighborhoods filled with 80- and 90-year-old homes and several sizable apartment complexes. With many of those residents still displaced, local leaders realize they have little time to act in order to avoid substantial population losses.

"It feels like the recovery runs at the pace of an EF-5 tornado some days," Cage said "There's just so much to accomplish, and so little time to get it done."


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