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Opinion: Fayetteville trip reveals engagement, similarities

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The Urban Districts Alliance took a page from the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce playbook in 2002 and began hosting an annual trip under that moniker to regional urban areas for community leaders. The eight trips have revealed the real discovery on these excursions occurs on multiple levels – the good ideas learned from the destination city, the affirmation that Springfield is doing some things right, and the opportunity to get to know your fellow travelers.

This year’s trip to Fayetteville, Ark., on June 24–25 consisted of 30 people from the city of Springfield, chamber, developers, bankers, institutional representatives and business owners. Although Fayetteville is less than half the size of Springfield – at 73,000 residents compared to the Queen City’s 159,000 – its similarities include a major Division I campus and a vibrant downtown. Here are the highlights.

Fayetteville finds
One of the first things Mayor Lioneld Jordan orchestrated coming into office in 2008 was a new strategic planning program called the Fayetteville Forward Economic Accountability Council. More than 600 citizens participated in meetings in the creation of an economic development plan. Leaders identified topics that were validated by volunteers stepping forward to serve on the planning action groups. Of the 38 items identified, 11 have been completed to date, three are ongoing, and four have future completion dates.

Through civic engagement processes such as Fayetteville Forward and monthly town hall meetings, the city provides many opportunities to allow citizens to voice concerns. The most controversial issue during the past year has been the implementation of a new paid parking system on Dickson Street to help fund a new garage for the Walton Arts Center. Dozens of merchants attended Little Rock City Council meetings to protest the new fees and system, but the mayor and council were willing to make tough decisions and stick by them. Here in Springfield, some challenging decisions lie ahead with the bus transfer station, and that kind of long-term approach will be needed.

The Fayetteville Farmers Market circling the square featured 65 vendors, acoustic music on every corner and lush landscaping. It is another demonstration of how a farmers’ market can be a wonderful community development event to bring people from across the area together for commerce, the arts and in a historical sense of place.

Springfield similarities
David Davies, assistant vice provost for finance and administration at the University of Arkansas, noted a “mature relationship” between the university and the city. Founded in Fayetteville 140 years ago, both entities are closely aligned and maintain regular communication. The importance of town-and-gown relations for Springfield is evident with Missouri State University’s investments in the IDEA Commons, OTC’s rapid expansion in center city and Drury University’s plans to have a greater presence on Commercial Street.

The effects of the “Great Recession” could be seen in a couple of Fayetteville’s major downtown development projects. Underwood Plaza is a mixed-use development on Dickson Street close to the university. It has a Big Momma’s Coffee & Espresso Bar, Orange Leaf and Waffle House as retail tenants, but there were several vacant storefronts and more than half of its 51 condos were unsold – including the two penthouse units priced at $1 million each. The Renaissance Tower project boasted plans for luxury a high-rise hotel with 200 rooms and five floors of condominiums. However, it is now a surface parking lot and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. Things are tough all over for developers.

Networking nexus
Discover Downtown and chamber leadership trips provide unique opportunities to get to know each other in ways not possible in the hustle of an everyday schedule. The couple of hours on the bus each way, dining with different groups or just walking back to the hotel at the end of the evening allow for more in-depth conversations.

The relationships cultivated on these trips are often the seeds that take root in projects months or years into the future. Examples from past UDA trips include the downtown movie theater in Wichita, Kan., Downtown Dollars in Lawrence, Kan., and retail recruitment incentives in St. Louis.

French author Marcel Proust once said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

Rusty Worley, executive director of Urban Districts Alliance, can be reached at rusty@itsalldowntown.com.[[In-content Ad]]

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