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Five Questions: Mary Lilly Smith

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Mary Lilly Smith is a 32-year veteran on city staff, and after 16 years as Springfield’s economic development director, on Jan. 26 she’ll succeed the retiring Ralph Rognstad as planning and development director. Smith, known on Twitter by the handle
@EcoDivaSGF, will lead 28 employees and a $10.3 million annual budget, including grants and loans. Her work has been noted in the recent transformation of downtown and center city, credited in part to her team’s use of public incentives for redevelopment.

City Start
“I think I’ve had almost every title that we have in the planning department. I was an assistant, associate, senior and principal planner. … Currently, I’m in charge of all the economic development activity for the city of Springfield. … I also work on downtown development and revitalization issues, working with developers on specific site issues. I have a five-member team. … When I take over the planning and development position, I will not only be responsible for economic development issues from a broad perspective, but also neighborhood conservation issues and development review.”

Balanced View
“I’m excited about the change and the challenge. Over the course of my career, I’ve worked in neighborhoods. I actually started the neighborhood conservation office and built that up. I did neighborhood plans and urban conservation districts, so I have a good grounding in that. Off and on, I’ve had some experience with development review, but that is probably the area I have the least experience with, and then I have a lot of experience with economic development. A lot of times with development-review cases, or zoning cases, we see that there are conflicts between the developers and the neighborhood. The recent issue with Quail Creek and Curtis Jared’s rezoning along Campbell is one example of that. The East Cherry Flats development is another example. I hope that my experience and perspective from having worked in both of those realms will help facilitate some of those conversations when we get to the zoning-case side.

Plug & Play
“I’ve been shadowing (Rognstad) on some meetings. … I’m going to be trying to get as much knowledge from him before he leaves the city. … Greg [Burris] just made the decision to hire me (on Nov. 20), so we haven’t had a chance to talk about the economic development director position, yet. The plan is to refill it. … Sometimes posting a job between Thanksgiving and Christmas is not a great time to get people’s attention, so we may not be able to get someone on board by the end of January, but we’re not going to dilly-dally on trying to fill the position.”

Crowning Policy
“I think that policy manual is one of the things I’m most proud of because it sets the standards and the criteria for the use of incentives. And it provides a level of certainty for the development community when they are looking at what kinds of assistance they might be able to get for their projects. It is something that is used on a weekly basis and has been copied across the state. … It is the perfect example of how something good can come out of something that wasn’t very pleasant. When we went through the state audit [in 2007], the state auditor was looking at policy decisions, as well as financial decisions, and called into question some of the decisions prior city councils had made regarding downtown investments. The comment was made that council has no policies in place on which to base their incentive decisions. Our response to that statement in the state audit was to develop a policy with regard to the use of incentives.”

“We had some good momentum going in the early 2000s, and then it all skidded to a halt with the economic downturn. I think we’re starting to see that whole recovery here. Some of the buildings needed to change hands to really get them off of the ground, so it has been very gratifying over the past year to see some of those major construction projects downtown occur with the Frisco building, Woodruff and the Heer’s really taking off. With student-housing projects, obviously, we’ve had a huge growth in those. … I think the transformation of the Kimbrough corridor has been remarkable. I really think that is positive on so many fronts. Not only did we get rid of a lot of blighted properties but we also increased density. That’s a really positive thing because it means people are having to drive fewer miles in order to get to campus. … I think it’s added to the culture and vibrancy of the campus by having that new construction.”[[In-content Ad]]


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