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‘Basecamp of the Ozarks’: Branding offers a way for the city to embrace a unified identity around nature

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Springfield City Council this month approved a comprehensive plan to guide land use for the next two decades. The plan, called Forward SGF, outlines a wide-ranging vision for the city and includes 10 main goals, which Springfield Business Journal is unpacking in this series. This seventh installment covers the key initiative of Connecting to Nature. Catch up on coverage at SBJ.net/ForwardSGF.

The comprehensive plan that will take Springfield through the year 2040 is no longer just a theory. Forward SGF is a fact, following City Council action on Nov. 14.

One of the shiniest pieces of the plan is a marketing decision to leverage the city’s brand as the “Basecamp of the Ozarks.” To do so, the city is turning its attention to enhanced outdoor recreation opportunities, improved sustainability and a focus on ecotourism as a way to connect residents and attract visitors.

The basecamp metaphor is more than a folksy nod to Springfield’s Ozarks setting, city officials say; it’s a whole new paradigm for the city, and a new way for its residents to tell their own story.

Connecting to nature
Springfield is home to the flagship store of Bass Pro Shops, which tops the 2022 Newsweek rankings of camping and outdoor gear retailers. That seems like a checkmark in the “pro” column when arguing for the branding of Basecamp of the Ozarks.

The city also boasts more than 90 parks within the Springfield-Greene County Parks system, as well as easy access to a variety of lakes and rivers for water sports enthusiasts. The vision statement in the Forward SGF plan reads, “Springfield will embrace its identity as the ‘Basecamp of the Ozarks,’ home to a well-connected system of parks, open spaces, trails and recreational opportunities that links the region’s many natural assets.”

The statement goes on to prioritize the protection of the Ozarks’ environment and ecology.

Amanda Ohlensehlen can see it. As director of Springfield’s Economic Vitality Department and a transplant earlier this year from North Carolina, Ohlensehlen said the beauty of the Ozarks is undeniable.

“Springfield is positioned in such a wonderful place, not only geographically as almost the center point of the United States, but here in the Springfield region we have such beautiful outdoor opportunities,” she said.

She added that connectivity to transportation routes and a low cost of living add to the draw as a place to live, work and play, as do cultural components.

“We have a really vibrant downtown,” she said. “We have Commercial Street. We have different commercial and business hubs throughout the city. Really, we have some of the assets of large city life, but you feel like you’re in a small town.”

A focus on nature in the comprehensive plan means the city embraces the outdoors even in its urban areas. A project that is now underway to daylight – or return to the surface – the buried waterway of Jordan Creek is a rewilding effort that will cut through the heart of the city.

Bringing back Jordan Creek is the kind of bold measure much of the plan encourages.

“Moving forward, the city should instill a progressive attitude towards infrastructure improvements that take on larger risks to implement transformative and sustainable projects,” the plan states. “This means moving away from ‘value engineering,’ or completing projects at the lowest cost for functional purposes without beautification components.”

The plan offers the $25.4 million Jordan Creek daylighting and the $26 million Grant Avenue Parkway multimodal transportation plan as examples of bold, transformational visions while leveraging infrastructure as an economic development tool.

Springfield, naturally
Mike Kromrey, executive director of Watershed Committee of the Ozarks Inc. and a member of the Forward SGF focus group on parks, greenways and natural resources, was enthusiastic about the vision for the city.

“Leveraging our natural assets is something that will set us apart,” he said. “When people first experience the Ozarks, one of the big impressions is the green hills and the clear water. It’s attractive to everybody.”

He also appreciated the embrace of sustainability.

“Going forward, with respect to population growth and climate change, we have to enter a new paradigm to not only continue to enjoy the resources that we have, but to leverage those into the future, and so that looks like thinking about expanding river access, connecting our greenway trail system, and focusing on green infrastructure and ecological health of our parks,” he said.

A practical step the city could take is moving toward native plantings instead of grass, and by doing so, improving soil health, water filtration, wildlife habitats and erosion prevention.

“When we embrace nature in our community, there are a myriad of benefits,” he said. “When we take care of nature, we take care of ourselves.”

Errin Kemper, the city’s Environmental Services director, agreed.

“Our mission is pretty central to protecting the natural environment in the region for decades into the future,” he said of his department.

He noted the department’s 200-plus employees are tasked with protecting the natural environment so residents can enjoy waterways in and around Springfield.

“Every community needs an identity that goes beyond the folks that live here. You want people in other parts of the world to see you in a certain way,” Kemper said. “The natural environment makes Springfield a nice place to work and live. I like living in Springfield and getting to go to a river within a few minutes of my house. As an identity, I think that’s a good one.”

Kemper started working with the city 20 years ago, and one of his primary duties then was the Jordan Creek project, which he said remains dear to his heart.

He said he can picture people going from business to business and shop to shop while using a greenway trail to walk along the river. Work on the project began in the summer. A completion date has not been announced as the city works to secure the bulk of its funding.

“All of those are ways to integrate the natural environment without having to load a canoe and travel 10 miles out of town to do it,” Kemper said. “I’m super excited after a long career to see it start getting some traction.”

The comprehensive plan suggests practical steps for promoting its unified Basecamp brand, like creating an updated map and business directory, available online and at visitor hubs to steer tourists to the city’s amenities and to promote the Ozarks’ geographical, geological and regional assets. It also suggests exploring ways the private sector can help expand visitors’ experiences in the city.

Telling the story
Kromrey said people are better off working with nature than trying to control it.

“I do think that our community has to start agreeing on our story and telling our story,” he said.

When asked what the story is, Kromrey laughed.

“Well, exactly,” he said.

Springfield has a lot of work to do, Kromrey said, but he noted that thinking of the city as the Basecamp of the Ozarks can help its residents to figure that out.

“We’re not one of those communities that’s good at telling our story, and part of that is because we don’t all agree on the story,” he said. “But I think we can all agree on the beauty of the Ozarks, so that’s a place to start.”

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jlrpayne@gmail.com

Aim high! Check out The Gathering Place in Tulsa - a great example of an urban park to emulate.

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