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Despite Deep Recession, Small Towns Roar: Mayors in small towns are championing smart growth to create thriving communities

June 7, 2013

Since the financial downturn, stories of cities in distress have littered the news. That’s why the smart growth of a small town like Jena, La., is so striking.

“In the six years since we began implementing our vision, sales revenue in Jena is up 55 percent,” says Mayor Murphy McMillin. “We also increased our population from 2000 to 2010, reversing a trend of population decline for three decades. That’s a big effort for a little town.”

Jena’s not the only little town making a big effort. Mini municipalities across the country are teaching big cities a few smart growth lessons. Here are their stories.

Jena: David Works with Goliath

The transformation of Jena began in 2009 with three proposals to expand Highway 84, a multi-state route that runs through the middle of the town. All would have harmed the town — either by allowing traffic to bypass it altogether or by requiring the demolition of historic buildings. But what recourse does a tiny town have when it’s facing a powerful state transportation agency?

More than you might think. “We looked at those proposals and said, ‘We don’t like any of them; can you give us six months to get a better proposal?’” explains McMillan. “With all due respect to the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, they listened. They said, ‘You have to give us compelling reasons why you want your proposal versus one of the three we’re presenting.’ They kept using that term, ‘compelling reasons.’”

Jena’s leaders dove in, hiring Austin, Texas-based community planners Code Studio and teaming up with the nonprofit Center for Planning Excellence (CPEX) in Baton Rouge, La., to determine the interests of Jena’s stakeholders. McMillan’s message? Jena must change or die. “We emphasized that if we didn’t break this small-town paradigm and get out of our comfort zone,” says McMillan, “we’d go backward.”

What did residents want? “There was a resounding desire to reinvest in their downtown,” says Camille Manning-Broome, CPEX’s director of planning. “They wanted to come up with an alternate route that wouldn’t have negative impacts on the downtown. There are beautiful trees and forests, and they wanted to make those a destination for bikeways and walking trails. They also wanted to expand the city park and link existing green spaces.”

The 2010 plan that grew out of those priorities won the DOTD over, and Jena’s revitalization is underway. “It’s a 15-year plan, and we’re entering year five now,” says McMillan. “We’ve let people know that quality of life includes quality of health. We wanted to make our streets more walkable and rideable.

Now we have miles of walking and biking trails that go by our creek system. Nobody recognized that as an asset until we sat them down and said, ‘We don’t have a river, a lake, or the ocean, but we do have a creek.’ We moved a grade school downtown, and we’re tying all our schools together with walking and biking trails and tying our downtown to the park with trails through a wooded area.”

The next stage will create a town square. “We’ve never really had an organized town square even though we’re the county seat of LaSalle Parish,” says McMillan. “Somebody donated some land, and we bought another piece of land, and we’re starting the process of putting together a town square.”

The lessons of Jena are vast. “When decisions are being made that have an impact on your community, you have a responsibility to be part of the discussion,” says Manning-Broome. “If you’re not, you’re making a decision to let what happens happen.”

McMillan says small towns’ leaders have to look critically at their area. “The assessment phase of your town is most important,” he says. “Look for assets you can capitalize on. Don’t be overly critical, but look at what you have and compare it to what others have, and be realistic about things you need to set about improving. It’s about improving attitudes about where you live, the health of the people where you live, and people’s desire to live there.”

Greer: Taming the Growth Tiger

Leaders in Greer, S.C., faced the opposite challenge. They weren’t stung by a population decline; they had to figure out how to shepherd rampant growth.

“We had a period where our growth was so exponential that we didn’t want to lose this sense of community that was the hallmark of our city,” says Mayor Rick Danner of the city that grew from 11,000 in 1990 to 26,000 in 2010. “Greer had the classic attributes of a small southern town, and that included a good quality of life and family values. We began to sense we needed to instill this idea that we were still a community that cared for each other. We wanted new residents to embrace that idea, and we figured the best way to do that was to replicate what we knew from the past.”

The crux of Greer’s tale, says Danner, is the decision to build a new city hall in the heart of downtown overlooking a 12-acre park rather than on the outskirts near a freeway. “In the late 1990s, there was a group of folks who came together as a public-private partnership called the Partnership for Tomorrow,” he says. “It was all the normal players — the city, the Chamber of Commerce, our public works commission, and businesses. Ours is an intact downtown with 40-plus buildings on the national registry. But we had a very struggling downtown and a tax base that was very marginal for the things we wanted to do. We agreed to do a five-year strategic plan and raised the money to hire the experts we needed. Truth be told, though it was a five-year plan, it’s taken nearly 15 years to complete. We’re in the third phase because we’ve redone it twice, and we’re looking at doing it another time.”

Donna O. Smith, a native of Greer and broker in charge of two Prudential C. Dan Joyner offices, one in Greenville and another in Simpsonville, joined that partnership. “We had very few stores and activity downtown,” recalls the member of NAR’s Smart Growth Advisory Board. “We knew our downtown had a lot to offer; we just had to figure out how to get people back down there. So we created a marketing plan and branded Greer. It started with a train station named Greer Station, and then we branded the downtown area as Greer Station.”

Today, new streetscapes and the new city hall have created “a quaint, warm little downtown,” says Smith. “The city redeveloped the old armory into the Cannon Centre. It rents those facilities out, and they’re packed all the time. We also have walking trails, a gazebo, and a reflection pond. People come, park and walk.”

Danner says other small-town leaders sometimes dismiss Greer’s story as too big for their britches. “It seems overwhelming that we were able to do this $23 million project,” he says. “They say, ‘We’d never be able to do that.’ We had some of that same syndrome. We spun our wheels for the first several years determining how we’d get funding and the type of project we’d do. All the while, people kept saying, ‘What are you going to do?’”

“We realized bricks and mortar are important,” says Danner. “We started doing sidewalks, streetscaping, a facade improvement plan, and a lot of things that had a cumulative effect. You don’t have to wait until you have $20 million. Pick $20,000 projects, and begin those with some long-term vision in mind. That can be as impactful as anything a big project will have. You don’t have to wait until you can buy the Cadillac. Buy a car and then move up as you can.”

Mission: Infrastructure Is Sexy

Faced with an aging population and businesses that didn’t always stick around, Mayor Laura McConwell of Mission, Kan., hired a community planning consultant to launch a visioning process for the 9,000-resident, 2.7-square-mile first suburb of Kansas City.

“Mission is a starter place for a lot of businesses, and they tend to move on,” says McConwell. “We had small, family-owned businesses where owners were getting old and didn’t have good exit strategies. In addition, many businesses were either going to be closing or needed to consolidate space, and we were going to have large parcels being sold. We began to consider what we wanted our town to look like when something new went in those spaces. We also had a mall, and as sort of as an afterthought, we said, ‘Why don’t you also investigate what the community would like to see if the mall’s not there anymore?’”

Turns out, that was prescient. Once the visioning process got underway, McConwell learned that $51 million of downtown property was in a flood plain and that the mall’s owners wanted out.

“We realized that as we had new growth, we had to make sure our infrastructure was sound,” explains McConwell. “A lot of it was way older than our city, and often we didn’t know where the water or wastewater lines were. Also, as our city got bigger, rather than expanding the sewer lines, the city added new ones; the sewer lines just meandered.”

Did residents get behind infrastructure upgrades? Indeed, they did. “We talked about the demands new development would put on our existing infrastructure and the fact that it wouldn’t do any good for us to build great new property if we couldn’t get water to it and wastewater away from it,” says McConwell. “We had a lot of pictures and charts, and we’d do inventories of what the infrastructure looked like. Those were worth 1,000 words, and they really told the story of why we needed to do the work.”

Redevelopment in Mission today includes a $165 million mixed-used development at the former mall site. “The only way to grow is to make sure we have more mixed-used development,” says McConwell.

“We’re trying to make the city more walkable. We’ve also been working at restoring our green space.” There have been naysayers, says McConwell, who carp about plans and costs. “It seems like elected officials are afraid to engage the community,” she says. “We’ve included some of our biggest critics, people who were the loudest, people who’d lived here for a long time, and those who had the largest property interests. I’d tell people we’d be like a freight train in that we’d blow our whistle loudly, we’d give everybody input, and we’d be happy to change tracks. But don’t throw rocks when we’re five miles past the junction and tell us we’ve missed something.”

Franklin: Preserving History

Franklin, Tenn., grew 49 percent, to 66,000, from 2000 to 2010, in part because corporations like Nissan and Healthways have made it and its environs their home base.

However, the town owes much of its character to decisions made a half-century ago. “It was probably in the 1960s when people recognized some of our history was being destroyed because people were tearing down homes in the downtown to put up buildings,” says Mayor Ken Moore. “They came together to form the Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County, our main preservation group.”

Around the same time, property owners and merchants on Main Street came together to fund streetscape work. “They put in underground utilities and did beautification work,” says Moore. “All of the sudden, there was this huge pride in these buildings, and businesses said that’s where they wanted to be.”

Ever since, there’s been an eclectic mix of businesses downtown, with staples on the first floors and more artsy businesses occupying second floors. “It’s an artistic, creative community,” says Moore. “One space is where artists who use Yamaha pianos call for rentals — that’s where Elton John calls if he wants a red piano. A lot of songwriters, country singers, and even some Broadway performers live in that area.”

With that unique foundation, the Heritage Foundation has worked to repurpose historic buildings downtown. When the historic Franklin Theater went up for sale as the recession hit, the foundation raised $8 million and created a 300-seat, multiuse venue that since 2011 has hosted live music, theater productions and movies.

Underway today is a $3 million public-private partnership to retool the town’s old post office. “The city got the building in a swap with the county, and it’s had a lot of problems and been a burden for us,” says Moore. “It wasn’t on our priority list to infuse millions of dollars into that building.”

On the drawing board is a renovation of the Old Old Jail, once the town’s jail that Moore cautions against confusing with the Old Old Old Jail, a local private event venue. “It’s another property the city obtained in a land swap with the county,” he says. “It’s partially in the flood plain, and it’s got lots of issues. But it’s in a downtown area that needs some revitalization. There’s a strong possibility the foundation is going to raise money to redevelop that building. I don’t want to tell you we’re going to give it to them, but we’re almost going to give it them.”

Franklin’s downtown is now a huge attraction. “We have a main street that’s alive,” says Moore. “No matter what day of the week you’re downtown, there are people walking Main Street, and tourists are here buying goods from our stores or having a cup of coffee. It’s made downtown a great selling point for businesses that want to come here.”