For some Missouri towns named DREAM Initiative communities, the dreams haven’t been all that sweet.
City officials in at least two area DREAM communities, Aurora and Strafford, aren’t reaping the benefits they’d hoped for when they were named to the state Department of Economic Development’s Downtown Revitalization and Economic Assistance for Missouri program. Ozark, Monett and Cassville in southwest Missouri were selected last month to their three-year stints in the program.
Since its launch in 2006, 40 small to midsize towns have received designations in DREAM, which organizers claim have created $179 million in public investment for housing, construction and renovation projects, and infrastructure improvements in the communities. Organizers say the public funding has led to $600 million in private investment statewide.
But Noelle Harmon, Aurora economic development and finance director, said the sour economy slowed the program’s impact on her town. Problems were twofold – the timing of Aurora’s designation in 2007 and misinformation as to what the initiative would provide, Harmon said.
“Although there were people who really wanted to see some improvement in the downtown area, that was a time when people were really starting to keep everything going as best they could within their own businesses,” Harmon said.
Some Aurora business owners believed the initiative would lead to money being available to them directly from the DREAM program. Communities may use DREAM resources to start business loan programs, but direct cash assistance is not a part of the program, Harmon noted.
Through the DREAM Initiative, Lawrence’s Trophy Place owner Tom Rysted learned of a federal loan program and borrowed $5,000 for building improvements.
Other DREAM program perks include land-use, building and infrastructure surveys; community and consumer surveys; downtown organizational structure reviews; retail and housing market analyses; financial assistance reviews; building and streetscape design guidelines; destination assessments; marketing and communications planning; and downtown strategic planning, according to www.modream.org.
With DREAM’s help, Aurora implemented a loan program for façades on downtown businesses and set up a fund at a local bank for business loans. The city keeps $15,000 in a certificate of deposit to be used for the loans.
Communities need a strong base of downtown business and property owners, and strong collaboration from the private sector for a successful DREAM experience, Harmon said.
As Strafford approaches its two-year mark as a DREAM community, city administrator Tom Vicat said he is awaiting benefits.
“So far, there’s been many, many discussions,” Vicat said of meetings with St. Louis-based architecture firm PGAV Planners, which consults and prepares projects for all DREAM communities.
“We have received from them a set of artist’s renderings of what we could do to the downtown area to make the buildings look nicer and more inviting,” Vicat said.
The biggest obstacle for Strafford has been a lack of participation by downtown business owners. DREAM meetings, held at night, were sparsely attended, Vicat said.
But Vicat remains hopeful. The town has established a DREAM Initiative committee and is working to engage downtown stakeholders.
Ozark city leaders hope DREAM community efforts would educate investors and developers of opportunities downtown, said Steve Childers, city administrator.
The city has invested in land owned by the Land Clearance Redevelopment Authority, a commission that recommends development incentives such as tax abatement and tax-exempt revenue bonds, and owns property in the Finley River Neighborhood Redevelopment District.
The economy has made it difficult for any development projects to materialize in the business district, just west of the city’s square, he said.
“What this will do is allow us to start over and re-evaluate based on a very different economy today than it was five years ago,” Childers said.
DREAM resources would help city officials determine the best use for the land and provide information on grants and other financial resources. He said Ozark officials are not expecting a windfall for the city’s business district.
“It really is a planning initiative. It’s not, ‘Here’s a check for $5 million, go redevelop something,’” Childers said.
While some communities have noted challenges that come with being a DREAM community, there are successes. Community and business leaders in Cape Girardeau have adopted a 10-year development plan – aided by $2.5 million in grants, so far – for art and theater districts, a riverfront park and aquarium, and convention hotel. Plans are at www.pgavplanners.com
The initiative recently was named an “outstanding project, program or tool” by the Missouri chapter of American Planning Association.
“While the program does have that proven track record of spurring development and downtown revitalization, we are always ready to work with any community to address any concerns it may have,” said John Fougere, DED spokesman.
“I certainly hope those communities are staying in close contact with our folks here at the Department of Economic Development.”[[In-content Ad]]