Chattanooga, Springfield transformed eyesores through visioning

Monday, December 31, 2007 | 6:38 p.m. CST; updated 7:49 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Editor's Note: This is one of several stories on Columbia’s visioning process that were reported and written by journalists in cooperation with The Missourian, Vox magazine, KBIA/91.3 FM and KOMU/Channel 8.

COLUMBIA — Twenty-three years after Chattanooga, Tenn., embarked on a visioning effort that eventually transformed its riverfront, Columbia has joined a host of cities across the country that have adopted the process as a catalyst for revitalization and shared community goals.

First used in 1984 in Chattanooga, visioning encourages residents to talk about what they want their community to be in the future. From there, the focus shifts toward implementing the ideas.

Jim Bowlen, vice president of RiverCity Co., a nonprofit corporation in Chattanooga that helped create a new city park along the Tennessee River, said visioning makes development easier by demanding community involvement — whether it’s wanted or not.

“It’s kind of like going to the dentist’s office,” Bowlen said. “You don’t look forward to it because you do hear from various viewpoints, so nothing is a slam-dunk.”

The method, which relies on expansive transparent decision-making, was pioneered by Gianni Longo of ACP Visioning and Planning.

“I had an idea but didn’t know the mechanics of it,” Longo said of the first community vision in 1984. “My own vision (was) that you could mobilize communities and turn those thoughts into action.”

Springfield moves ahead

The technique also was used in Springfield in 1994. As a result of its Vision 20/20 plan, Springfield tore down a dilapidated industrial center and created the 200-acre Jordan Valley development plan, which has added a thriving green space with new baseball and ice-skating facilities and a high-tech research park.

“One of the great things about the Vision 20/20 process was that we didn’t wait till the individual plans were written to begin implementing them,” said Mary Lilly Smith, Springfield’s economic development director.

Jordan River Valley, which had been dominated by a quarry, now has an arts center, stores and loft apartments. Project organizers say the development is drawing people downtown.

“It has ended up being the most visible result of the visioning process,” Smith said.

40 goals targeted

In Chattanooga, the move toward new community planning came during a period when the city had some of the dirtiest air in the country. It was so polluted that clothes hanging on laundry lines sometimes developed holes and drivers had to use headlights during the day.

Businesses in the mid-1980s were fleeing the industrial city near the Georgia border.

Chattanooga’s first plan, called Vision 2000, laid out 40 goals to be accomplished by the turn of the century. After tackling 223 projects, creating almost 1,400 jobs and investing more than $790 million, the city began a second visioning process in 1992 because most of the original goals had been achieved.

The marquee project was a new park along the Tennessee River and the renovation of a pedestrian bridge. Before the visioning process, warehouses and vacant buildings lined the river. Today, it is a 150-acre park and home to the Tennessee State Aquarium and 13 miles of green space.

Problems with sprawl, infrastructure and population growth prompted Springfield to turn toward visioning. City officials, mainly from the planning and parks departments, began the discussions, and BRW, a consulting firm from Minneapolis, was hired to serve as an extension of the city staff, not to lead it.

“Visioning helped develop the goals and the community support for implementation,” Smith said. “Part of what excited the public and kept them involved was that we implemented goals as we continued visioning so they could see progress, and it wasn’t just an academic effort.”

The downtown park came from two of 13 focus groups convened as part of the effort. The two groups called for a city park along the lines of Central Park in New York or Forest Park in St. Louis.

More than 40 projects have emerged from the visioning process, with the city hoping for completion by 2021. The goals are as diverse as renovating the hippo habitat at the zoo to improving city utilities.

The work won’t be cheap. Springfield has budgeted about $34.6 million to visioning projects for the upcoming year alone. Most are being financed through a capital improvements sales tax.

Leadership a key

Visioning has rejuvenated downtowns, improved housing and expanded public transportation systems, but non-elected city leaders in Springfield generated the ideas.

“These were not the ‘typical suspects’ — not the chamber execs, councilmen, etc. In fact we made a real effort not to have a ‘blue ribbon’ committee but to try to draw out ‘normal’ citizens,’” Smith said.

In Chattanooga, working largely without the initial endorsement of politicians, a nonprofit corporation was created to guide the visioning process. Chattanooga Venture was staffed by just a handful of people and had an advisory board of 60 designed to represent different economic, racial, religious and societal demographics.

Eleanor Cooper, Chattanooga Venture’s first executive director, said organizers worked to get key leaders involved and attracted interest from the community by encouraging residents to participate. She said the city’s falling population, declining businesses and general stagnation also helped spur involvement.

“We were desperate, and people felt that,” Cooper said.

Deciding on goals was only part of the process. Turning them into something tangible required a separate undertaking.

Chattanooga worked with nonprofit corporations that used public money and private donations to pay for several projects, including the downtown park and a housing improvement project.

Much of the Jordan River Valley development in Springfield, however, represents private enterprise. For example, Springfield businessman and hotel developer John Q. Hammons owns the minor league baseball stadium, and one of his Drury Inns borders the site. Although not directly connected to the original vision, Missouri State University contributed money to develop a research park that is being built downtown.

Visioning spreads

As visioning gained popularity, the methodology turned into a business venture and the technique spread. Longo, who helped usher in the trend by designing the 1984 process in Tennessee, founded ACP 10 years later and now has offices in New York and Columbus, Ohio.

Longo estimates he has worked with 30 to 50 different projects to date. ACP currently has consulting contracts with at least 16 different cities and planning authorities, including Kona, Hawaii; Prairie Village, Kan.; Rockville, Md.; and Amherst, Mass.

A community vision is not designed to be a one-time effort. Because it focuses first on goals and then on how to get there, supporters of the technique say it must be regularly updated.

“I think they should do that,” Longo said. “A vision is a bit like a strategic plan, and if they don’t strategize the function and don’t look ahead, they might end up all of a sudden feeling like they’re not on top of the situation.”

Both Springfield and Chattanooga have turned visioning into an ongoing part of community development. Springfield, which before the 1994 visioning process had gone 34 years since creating its last community plan, updated its plan in 2004.

Bowlen, of the RiverCity Co. in Chattanooga, said residents there now expect any major city decision to be evaluated through the visioning process.

“We can’t find a facility big enough to hold the crowds,” he said. “They know that if they come out, they will be heard, and if it’s plausible, it will be built in their lifetimes.”

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