Monday, March 31, 2008

Can You Talk Straight to a Fifth Grader? Paul Sturtz for City Council

Many thanks to Jennifer Wingert's Fifth Grade Class at Grant Elementary for providing these questions to local political candidates. And many thanks to the candidates for answering.

How will you ALL work together to improve Columbia and Boone County?

First off, we need to bring everyone to the table: the City Council, the Boone County Commission, the school board, businesses, the university and colleges, and neighborhoods.

In the political world, everyone affected by decisions are called "stakeholders." By having everyone share their ideas as a group, we can devise much better solutions than if we are all working alone or against each other. It's kind of like everyone getting a homework assignment, but instead of completing the work and being graded individually, we share our best thinking and complete the assignment together.

By cooperating and taking everybody's needs and concerns into account, the chances of finding a good solution are much higher. Last year, Columbia held "visioning" forums in which anyone in
the community who wanted to could share their ideas about how they would like Columbia to be in the future. Out of this came wonderful ideas and now it's time to implement some of them. We can do this through listening to a wide variety of voices from the community and then by sincerely putting ideas into action.

Another issue we can get better at in our community is in making sure we have plenty of good jobs that pay good wages and nice homes that families can afford. We also need to close the much-too-old and much-too-wide gap between white and black people, and making our community feel like a welcoming, vibrant place to live.

The environment is an area that we can improve on. Columbia can be a town that doesn't ruin its creeks and hillsides and other special places just for the short-term gain of a few.

The higher energy costs that we all face make this issue even more important. We cannot afford to build a community that requires everyone to drive a long way from homes on the outskirts. We can build up in the middle of the city -- this will bring jobs, and transform a place that needs a lot of love and care, while at the same time making our city less congested and more energy efficient.

Why is Columbia continuing to build apartments/buildings when so many
are vacant -- like empty shopping centers -- at this time?

This is confusing to most of us, as we would ordinarily think we'd build new things because somebody needs them right then! But the world of construction doesn't always follow this logic.

Sometimes developers erect new buildings and strip malls and such because banks are loaning
money at a good rate, or because a company has a plan to add a certain amount of stores around the country by a certain date, or because putting up an apartment building is a good way to avoid paying too many taxes. All very complicated things, that can be pretty risky and usually aren't very clear to us.

Instead of having to react to these not-always-sensible developments, it would be much healthier if Columbia worked hard to fill up all of the buildings in the middle of town before we kept sprawling out into the countryside. And we can make sure that property owners are accountable by enforcing laws that vacant properties aren't allowed to be neglected and become an eyesore for everyone.

At the same time, the Council can encourage better use of some of the empty properties. One great example is an old roofing company building on Orr Street on the north side of downtown which has been fixed up into art studios -- this kind of exciting change inspires other good things
in the area.

How does the city and county decide what streets get salted/plowed
during bad weather?

There are 450 miles of streets in Columbia, and so it would take something like 5 days to clear all streets. That's why the city and the county must prioritize clearing the main streets like Broadway and Garth (conveniently the two streets right outside Grant!) and that's
generally a good thing. That way people can at least cross the city, even after a big snowstorm.

Because of complaints about how slow roads were cleared, last year the city bought five additional pickup trucks, and it seems to be going better. The city has a place on the north
side of town where we store 4000 tons of salt (that's 800,000 pounds!) and that's pretty effective, but it takes a while to melt snow. That's why we also have 600 tons of cinders from the power plant. They are ugly and make the roads all dirty, but they work quickly in the sun.

Residential streets where people live are the last streets to be plowed, and because of how time-consuming it is, they sometimes never get plowed.


What is the City Council doing to positively promote ideas for
building a better downtown?

We have a long way to go, but Columbia's downtown is certainly better than most in the U.S and it's what distinguishes us from 'Anytown, U.S.A.'. It's a relatively safe place because it's a small enough area with buildings spaced relatively close together that people can easily
walk and bike around.

Because people live in downtown as well as work in downtown businesses during the day and evening, it's a neighborhood as well as a business district (planners use a fancy term for this
'mixed-use'), which helps keep it safe too. Downtown Columbia offers a fair amount to do, especially when we have big events like the Roots 'n' Blues festival, which is free and will be held in October.

And there are good restaurants and places to see music and movies and in May, there will be the Youzeum, which should be a fun science museum to learn about the human body, and the Missouri Theatre, newly reopened after a year of construction.

The City Council is interested in downtown being even more interesting, and that is why it just voted for a way to finance improvements downtown. That will probably mean that the Tiger Hotel, that building with the big Tiger sign on top, will be fixed up again. A new Hyatt Hotel will soon be built on Broadway too. This could lead to more people coming to visit the downtown and helping to support businesses there.

And it's possible it will mean that more apartments will be built so that people can live downtown. By looking at the history of downtowns in American cities we know that successful
downtowns have a great deal of variety in the types of and sizes of businesses and in the cost and style of housing. Columbia has to be very, very careful that small and start-up businesses as well as big businesses and people of more modest means as well as people with a lot of money can afford to be part of the downtown community

I work with a group called COLORS and we promote the idea that locally owned businesses are better for the town because they make them more exciting, instead of being just like every other town in the country, where it all looks and feels the same. Because of this, the city should work more closely with homegrown businesses to help them get established. The other
really important thing about locally-owned businesses is that they aren't nearly as likely to send Columbia dollars out of town. Local economies do best when they can bring in dollars from out of town and keep those dollars as well as the dollars of their own citizens in the
community. Not only do chain stores and restaurants look and feel the same anywhere you go, they typically take our local dollars and send them to banks and investments in other communities, states, or even other countries.

There are some other exciting plans afoot to make downtown better. One was put forward by some consultants from Boston named Sasaki Associates and there's another from the North Central Columbia Neighborhood Association, which has developed a blueprint for the
residential and business area just north of downtown. None of these ideas will happen without changes – some from the community and the stakeholders and some from the City Council. Together, however, these ideas provide the foundation for building a livable community in the
heart of our city.

1 comment:

  1. Just a point of information, but Tony Messenger was not the editor of the Springfield paper. He was the editor of the op-ed section. That's a major difference.