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Opinion: Development at risk when safety hazards rise

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The mantra of downtown revitalization is “clean, safe and friendly.” It’s no accident that “safe” is at the center of economic development.

Throughout the suburban flight of the 1970s and 80s, the prevailing mental image of urban areas was dark, dirty and, in a word, “scary.” Soccer moms steered their new minivans and their kids to mega shopping malls and the big-box stores.

However, by the mid-1990s, artists, restaurateurs and developers discovered they could acquire properties in blighted areas through the use of historic tax credits and other urban revitalization programs. The new businesses had to demonstrate it was safe to return to center city.

In downtown Springfield, the 400 property owners and public entities banded together in 1999 to create a Community Improvement District. They hired maintenance workers to pick up trash daily from the sidewalks, remove graffiti and shovel snow. They worked closely with police to have community-oriented-policing, or COP, officers who understood the nuances of patrolling a dining and entertainment district, including a college bar scene populated with 3,000 to 10,000 people on any given night. They worked closely with the city to apply for millions of dollars in federal and state funds for new sidewalks and parking decks.

Despite these efforts, there is still work to be done. A couple of high-profile assaults during the summer were troubling. The square can be intimidating at different times of the day, especially for women. Panhandling is too prevalent. The COP program was decimated during the past two budget years.

These experiences have shaped the upcoming changes to Park Central Square. The shrubs on the northeast corner will be removed so people can see across the entire space. Lighting will be added to eliminate the dark spots. Security cameras will be installed. Speakers will be mounted and music will be selected with the goals of providing background sounds to shoppers and discouraging intimidating behavior.

The most effective infrastructure enhancement is development. The reason the square has attracted problem behavior during the past two decades is that its major buildings are dark, especially after 5 p.m. The renovation of the Heer’s building will make a major difference in bringing positive activity to the area – which always drowns out the negative (look no further than First Friday Artwalks to see that in action).

Current business owners have a role to play. Similar to a residential neighborhood watch program, employees, owners and residents can maintain strong working relationships with their COP officers, call 911 as needed and maintain their own storefronts. Restaurants not only monitor their sidewalk cafes, but they work closely with police to report issues they see.

In 2005, restaurant and bar owners established a hospitality resource panel of 25 people to represent stakeholder groups in dealing with quality of life issues in center city. The panel promotes alternative transportation (the lack of taxis in Springfield contributes to security issues at bar closings) and is a sounding board for potential changes to city ordinances. Peer pressure from fellow business owners is a strong tool to self-police and discourage inappropriate practices.

That spirit of collaboration will be exhibited in the leveraging of $100,000 for supplemental police patrols this year. The Downtown CID, Springfield-Greene County Library District, MSU, the city of Springfield, and downtown restaurant and bar owners have come together to fund $75,000 for extra-duty officers. Coverage is both during the day and into the late night and is in addition to the two COP officers who are permanently assigned to downtown. The city’s Community Development Block Grant program also funded a $25,000 grant for supplemental police patrols for Commercial Street this fiscal year.

When the square reopens after renovations in 2011, it will be designed as a place where everyone is welcome and comfortable. Youth should be encouraged to take a strong ownership of community gathering places and send the message that those who choose to engage in illegal or intimidating behavior should go somewhere else.

Authenticity is the major drawing card for center city. While celebrating diverse backgrounds and tastes, “clean, safe and friendly” are the standards everyone should respect and demand.

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