Columbia’s visioning project, up to this point, has primarily been handled by some of the city’s top officials: the mayor, city manager, Boone County presiding commissioner, college leaders and the superintendent of the public school district.
This has led to some concern that the vision, which is supposed to be a product of widespread community input, will be driven from the top down. But Gianni Longo of ACP Visioning and Planning, the consulting firm helping organize the visioning effort, promises that won’t be the case.
Longo said visioning works only if it’s driven by citizens. At a Sept. 7 kickoff hosted by the visioning Sponsors Council, which is composed of community leaders, Longo assured residents that “good ol’ boys” and the “civically obsessed” won’t dominate the project.
“We will look at participants that come to meetings and make sure that it actually represents the demographics of Columbia,” Longo said.
Assistant City Manager Paula Hertwig Hopkins, the staff leader for visioning, made the same promise.
If this had been a “good ol’ boy” process, nothing up to this point would have been open to the public, she said in an e-mail. “Every meeting and discussion has been open, public invited and, in fact, anyone can apply. However, skill in facilitation and group leading is a minimum requirement. Good ol’ boys make decisions behind closed doors, and these have been wide open.”
Hertwig Hopkins said team building and the ability to work together are key skills when working with a large group of people with divergent ideas and values.
In its proposal to the Selection Committee, ACP representatives said they plan to work with staff and the Vision Committee on publicity and outreach to build awareness of upcoming events. The group invites the community to public meetings and encourages participation from diverse segments of the community who might be less likely to engage in the program.
If ACP finds there is a geographic area or an ethnic group that is underrepresented, Longo said, it will create focus groups and hold meetings to ensure their input.
“If they don’t come to us, we’ll go to them,” he said.
Columbia resident Constance Hyman attended the Sept. 7 meeting at which ACP presented its proposal. Hyman plans to participate in the visioning. She thinks the process will be effective in countering the top-down approach, but said there are always people who try to control things.
“I think that, in the end, if the process works as it’s supposed to, we will come out with something we can all live with and be proud of,” Hyman said. “If hijacked by the powers that be, then we will have the same old, same old.”
Longo said ACP’s work with Champaign and Urbana, Ill., mirrors what it hopes to do in Columbia. Frank DiNovo, development director for the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, said ACP has been pretty good to work with and that they’ve been helpful in creating very specific to-do lists for their vision project, dubbed “big. small. all.”
“They have some really clear ideas about it, and we have some really clear ideas about it,” DiNovo said. “They’ve been willing to sit down and talk through things. The end result’s been contributions of our own thinking and theirs, which has led to a great outcome. We’ve gotten out of this what we really wanted.”
DiNovo said that if the project works from the top-down, the vision is still born. But he said people can’t have an effective process by leaving institutional and business leaders out.
“The project can’t be a product of the same group of people who go to all of the meetings, but instead, a partnership among community leaders with leverage and the broader general public who are most passionate and talented,” said DiNovo.
Bringing both groups together is key, but DiNovo said it can be “tricky.”
“A very large part of this process is going to be communication,” DiNovo said. “We were careful to hold meetings at different locations and times.”
The greatest disappointment for “big. small. all.” was the lack of involvement from the working class and the poor. DiNovo said it’s no surprise that people who work multiple jobs, spend all day on their feet and face family pressures aren’t as inclined to attend evening meetings. DiNovo said it’s important to ensure that the concerns of such groups are represented. The single most important tool for doing that has been the telephone, he said.
“It’s best to make a concerted effort to cast a wide net,” said DiNovo. “Overall, we found that in a college town, people do seem to have great interest in this process.”
The Columbia City Council has scheduled various Fall Vision Festivals and created surveys for residents to share their ideas. The surveys are intended to allow residents to specify what they might like to be involved in. The council also hopes to form Citizen Topic Groups by late October. Those groups will tackle various issues and write goals, objectives and strategies for addressing them over time.