After more than a quarter-century, recollections of my 15th birthday are fuzzy at best. I don’t remember what presents were unwrapped or where we went to celebrate. But I do know that skinny, clumsy, hard-working kid who was dependent on the generosity of others was happy and hopeful for the future.

The Urban Districts Alliance celebrates its 15th birthday this month. There’s an argument to be made that community development should be measured in dog years, and on certain days, the staff feels a tottering 105. However, UDA is typically much more reminiscent of the young teen you want to root for – pimples, elbows and all.

Personality
Birthed by the Vision 20/20 efforts in 1997, UDA shepherded the creation of community improvement districts for downtown and C-Street, supported new center city loan programs from the Springfield Finance and Development Corp. and the city of Springfield, facilitated the Hospitality Resource Panel to engage bars and restaurants, and served the merchant organizations for its three historic business districts.

UDA has been called the “grease and the glue” for public investments such as IDEA Commons, Jordan Valley and West Meadows, for the donation of the Tindle Mills property, and for numerous streetscape projects.

It has encouraged private development for more than 600 loft apartments and dozens of restaurants, retail stores and art galleries.

All that said, there is still confusion about the alphabet soup of downtown. One could start an Abbot and Costello routine about CID on first, DSA on second, HRP on third, and the rest of the center city organizational abbreviations. As UDA moves from adolescence, more clearly defining the roles of its related entities and leveraging their resources will be priorities.

Perpetual learning
Some teenagers see a high school diploma as the finish line and race to get to the “real world.” Others know their educational journey is just beginning with college, graduate school and continuing education ahead.

Through the mentoring of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce and the city, UDA hosts annual “Discover Downtown” trips to other cities to commandeer good ideas for urban revitalization.

On its most recent trip to Des Moines, Iowa, the 25-person group heard information on a land bank program, saw a new $21 million bus transfer station, toured urban housing and attended one of the Midwest’s largest fine arts festivals.

Historic Walnut and Commercial streets have evolved differently than originally planned. C-Street’s live-music focus has morphed into an emphasis on local foods with Askinosie Chocolate, Pizza House, Sisters in Thyme, Big Momma’s and its farmers market. Walnut Street has become more focused on professional offices than boutique retail and restaurants. Both are examples that the free market, not plans on a shelf, will ultimately drive development.

Predicaments and promise
Kids are going to have bad days with lower-than-expected grades, occasional missed curfews and the like. Downtown has its disappointments with the inevitable cycle of small businesses – losing Wheeler’s and landing the Bistro Market, Harpo’s closing and BodySmith opening, and most recently, Staxx announcing a move and a yet-to-be-named new owner planning to move into the South Avenue space.

The Heer’s building is a seven-story daily reminder that there is still work to be done in attracting new offices and residents. Loitering, panhandling and graffiti are all issues that ebb and flow with the seasons.

The future is always bright for teenagers who care about making a difference, are eager to learn and have a strong base of support. UDA has a solid foundation to build upon in all those areas. Most importantly, the Springfield community remains committed to having an authentic and vibrant center city.

Light the candles. Dish out the ice cream. Then it’s time for this pimple-faced birthday kid to get back to work.

Rusty Worley, executive director of Urban Districts Alliance, can be reached at rusty@itsalldowntown.com.