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Ozarks Rambles

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by Kenny Knauer

"Those who ignore the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them."

Georges Santayana, French Philosopher

It was so-called conventional wisdom that led many cities and municipalities to adopt drastic and draconian solutions for their economically depressed downtown shopping environments in the mid-1960s to mid-1970s.

Springfield chose to adopt the infamous tuning-fork traffic solution of one-way streets, without allowing for additional convenient parking, culminating in shutting off the beloved public square to automobile traffic. The result was that decades of Route 66 traffic and shoppers were detoured around the pleasant display windows and inviting storefronts on our historic center city square.

Although a partial solution of free parking on peripheral lots utilizing "Candy Striper" free connector buses was instituted, it was not adequate. This confusing maze of poorly signed streets and full parking lots led to an eventual economic malaise that ultimately spread up Boonville to Commercial Street and down South, Walnut and McDaniel streets to the edges of the Southwest Missouri State University campus.

With the benefit of today's 20-20 hindsight, this solution evolved into a devilishly efficient, but inadvertent, method of starving businesses in and around the beloved public square a method that featured no auto traffic through the center of the city on our section of historic Route 66. Furthermore, this situation was aggravated when shoppers who tried to park somewhere for more than half an hour were frequently hassled by wicked-witch-type parking control officers.

This same conventional wisdom caused many other cities that were feeling the pinch of lost customers to suburban malls (with free parking and shirt-sleeve comfortable shopping in a controlled-climate environment) to close off their own downtown historic streets and create artificial, pedestrian-friendly shopping areas.

This was absolutely the case locally, when Battlefield Mall and suburban strip center shopping destinations began making their heavy inroads into downtown and Commercial Street shopping revenues in the 1960s and 1970s.

The innate wisdom of C. Arch Bay, and other downtown devotees and business visionaries who fought against the tuning fork remedy, was confirmed many years later when Mr. Bay, one of the sharpest businessmen and real estate investors in local memory, joyfully rode on the bulldozer that finally opened the public square to automobile traffic.

Many seemingly permanent (family owned) historic district businesses that were in their second or third generation of ownership faced a difficult dilemma stay downtown and struggle to survive against the massive marketing muscle and promotional budgets of the suburban shopping mall developers, or join the herd of businesses moving to the malls and strip centers, close their long-time downtown locations and thus follow the pell-mell rush to suburbia.

It was also an agonizing choice for many long-term local churches that had enjoyed their convenient downtown locations, still surrounded in those days by their parishioner neighbors. Public perception about downtown shopping trips had stereotypically changed throughout the country to the negative: fears of not enough parking and exaggerated misperceptions of urban crime gone rampant.

The negative appearances of boarded up and closed businesses, and the beginnings of graffiti began to change the whole attitude. "Meet me at the Gravel Bar at Heer's for lunch and shopping, or a movie" became "Meet me at Famous and then we'll do lunch at the Golden Lion."

Do not despair, good neighbors of the Ozarks, there exists a marvelous, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remedy these past failed experiments. There is still time to awaken from our long urban sleep, to share in and rebuild a common vision of how downtown and the historic districts along Commercial, Boonville, South and Walnut streets can be revived and allowed to prosper once again.

The multiyear planning and community involvement process known as Vision 20/20 began with an infusion of fresh ideas about urban civic redesign, realistically based on real-world experiences in other reborn cities, coupled with a new awareness of the absolute importance of community-wide planning and development, and it was initiated and enthusiastically supported by many concerned citizens and public leaders. The popular success of this dreaming and visioning stage has now metamorphosed into the planning and building process known as the Civic Park Advisory Committee.

A wide range of citizens, city and county planners, and representatives from many downtown institutions, make up a devoted group that meet in the Vision 20/20 building on Central Street. These enlightened citizen members of the various committees have invested years of volunteer time in analyzing processes for rehabilitation, renewal and rebuilding, but their efforts must have across-the-board support from the churches, banks and savings associations, educational institutions, governmental entities and businesses located both in the suburbs and in the downtown and historic areas, to fully succeed.

Longtime local official and civic enthusiast E. C. Mike Compton said it best when he remarked "I have been given the privilege of public service." Note he didn't say the burden or the chore, but chose to see the positive in civic volunteerism.

The public support for the hotel-motel tax has given us a rare opportunity to dream, redesign and renew our lovely downtown and historic areas, with walking-distance shopping, excellent dining destinations, and a wonderful arts and entertainment environment.

Revitalization has been aided by starting with proven winners, such as the exquisite Landers Theater and the Vandivort building theater and arts spaces, the lovely Discovery Center, the reuse of the Kentwood Arms Hotel as an inviting student dormitory and the soon-to-be-reopened historic Gillioz Theater.

None of this would have occurred without the hard work and planning of the Downtown Springfield Association, Urban Districts Alliance, Special Business District, the St. Pat's Parade Committee, Springfield Planning and Development, the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, Walnut Street Merchants Association, North Side Community Betterment Association, Mid Town Historic Neighborhood, Founder's Park, and various other civic organizations.

This has been coupled with new and vigorous leadership from the downtown banks; newly opened and surviving businesses; certainly from SMSU officials and volunteers; such city of Springfield believers and planners as Fred May, Vern Morgan and Barbara Lucks; from Ben Alexander and others from the city Planning and Development offices; Dan Kinney and the Park Board; City Council; and county leadership from the top down.

The lesson learned from other thriving city downtown revitalizations is that lots of love and attention to historic assets, investments of time and funds in these areas can indeed reverse years of blighting and decay. These painstaking and well-planned efforts can indeed bring back businesses and jobs, help to invite more loft dwellers, and encourage art museum patrons, fine dining enthusiasts and nightlife aficionados.

(Kenny Knauer is an organizer of the St. Pat's Parade, a participant with the Parks, Greenways and Open Spaces Committee of Vision 20/20, and a long-time member and volunteer on the steering committee of Founder's Park.)

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