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Opinion: Downtown set to reinvent workplaces

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Downtown Springfield has a long history of reinventing itself as a place to work.

Over the past two decades of redevelopment and investment, the legendary Heer’s department store building evolved to become the home for AmerisourceBergen’s dozens of health care information technology staff; an MFA Inc. grain mill was reengineered into Missouri State University’s Jordan Valley Innovation Center for nanotechnology, medical research and more; and a Willow Brook Foods processing plant transformed into the region’s home for entrepreneurship. A former nightclub has been razed to become the site for a future 100,000-square-foot office building. A vacant warehouse on Kimbrough Avenue is now the bustling headquarters of the Jordan Valley Community Health Center with hundreds of health care professionals.

Former Missouri State University President Mike Nietzel created a vision for an urban innovation park north of Park Central Square with the term IDEA Commons to foster serendipitous encounters by co-locating professionals representing innovation, design, entrepreneurship and art.

The density of businesses, and energy from three college campuses and numerous restaurants, coffee shops, sidewalk cafes and breweries, make working downtown a distinctive experience. The Downtown Springfield Association has long sought to promote the area as a great place to work by hosting free lunchtime and happy hour concerts, coordinating the summertime Downtown Wiffle League and scheduling monthly mixers.

Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has forever altered office culture.

Employees discovered they can work from home and be productive. Employers utilized new technologies. At the same time, Zoom fatigue became a new phenomenon and many staff missed the opportunity to interact with their colleagues face to face. Business leaders will be challenged to work with their employees to find the right hybrid approach that works for their organizations.

Office spaces must be redesigned to allow for more personal space per employee, with more deliberate sanitation programs. The office will be much more intentional to foster collaboration and culture.

Gap financing from the Springfield Finance and Development Corp. and the city of Springfield spurred millions of dollars of investment in historic renovations for lofts, restaurants and retailers since 1997. These programs can play a vital role in redesigning the next generation of offices. SFDC made sure to maintain a portion of its available funds to fuel new and expanding businesses during the Road to Recovery.

Providing locally directed resources to employers could be the critical ingredient to securing new tenants in the Vecino Group’s new office building in the IDEA Commons and new infill projects near Jordan Creek.

Another piece of good news is that businesses won’t need to allocate as many parking spaces with hybrid models and staggered schedules, which is advantageous for downtown.

Springfield is in a unique position to build on the center city momentum started before the pandemic, including the Forward SGF comprehensive plan, and Renew Jordan Creek and Grant Avenue Parkway projects to incorporate the new realities of a post-pandemic workplace.

Employees, employers and developers will all have the opportunity in the coming months to offer their input on shaping the future of the IDEA Commons and major redevelopment sites. What outdoor amenities would entice them to work or locate their businesses downtown? What transportation options would they like to see over the next 10 years with the continued development of electric cars, autonomous vehicles and greenway trails? How can office spaces be designed to be flexible, embody a desired organizational culture and offer opportunities for collaboration?

There is still time to include many of these ideas from the ground up in a community that encourages its citizens to be engaged.

Public funding for Renew Jordan Creek and Grant Avenue Parkway is already in place. More federal infrastructure funds will be debated in the new few weeks. There will be a keen interest in stimulating the recovery through leveraging public and private partnerships.

Escalating vaccinations will allow more workers to return to downtown Springfield. This is the time to join with city staff, its consultants, fellow workers and center city advocates to create the next generation of workplace options for downtown Springfield.

Rusty Worley, executive director of Downtown Springfield Association, can be reached at rusty@itsalldowntown.com.

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