Friday, December 02, 2011

When it comes to downtown revival, we have to start thinking like farmers

An urban planner wants us to think like farmers. Crop yields, stuff like that.

A rural conservation institute with desert roots works to revive our city centers.

A city collaborates with urban and rural entities as it seeks ways to fill a gaping hole in its downtown. 

That's the odd combination of interests that gathered yesterday for "The Dollars and Sense of Downtown Development" at the Laramie County Public Library in Cheyenne. 

Urban planner Joe Minicozzi conducted the PowerPoint presentation. He's V.P. of the Asheville, N.C., Downtown Association. He was introduced by Sheridan's John Heyneman, project manager of the Northern Rockies Region/WY Program of the Sonoran Institute. He, in turn, was introduced by Matt Ashby, planning services director of the City of Cheyenne.

In the audience were downtown business owners, civic activists, government types and interested bystanders such as myself (full disclosure -- I also am a government type who works at the state arts council). My daughter Annie, too, an 18-year-old budding singer/songwriter who finds politics interesting. Not sure if there are other artists in the room, although if would behoove them to attend events such as these. The arts play a huge part in any downtown revival. Just ask Asheville, with its 30-some galleries and public art works and performing arts centers and outdoor street festivals. Go ahead, ask.

Think like a farmer. That's what Asheville's Minicozzi tells us. Think about production per acre. Think about tax policies. 

Do we have to?

Yes we do.

He's studied Cheyenne, and is here with the help of a grant from the State Historic Preservation Office, sister agency to the Wyoming Arts Council. He's looked at the numbers and Cheyenne's coffers would get a much better yield if it was planting businesses downtown instead of on Dell Range.

This appeals to the locavore in me. This appeals to the "shop locally" part in me. It appeals to the artscentric part of me.

The homegrown Laughing Seed Cafe in downtown
Asheville (from The Painted House blog) 
Another thing -- those businesses planted in any city's Central Business District (CBD) tend to be more entrepreneurial and are usually launched by local entities instead of some far-away corporation. 

He has nothing against Wal-Mart, Minicozzi said, but noted that Wal-Mart does one thing very well, and that's "getting money back to Arkansas." You could also say the same about Target (Minnesota) and all the big box stores. 

"They exploit existing tax systems," he said. He shows some funny PowerPoint visuals which illustrate that those systems are not part of our DNA and are not chiseled in stone like the Ten Commandments. Nobody even seems to know how they started. Minicozzi had a chance to talk to the Laramie County tax assessor earlier in the day during some meetings with city and county government leaders. The assessor didn't know the history of tax policy -- not unusual. 

"Development follows the path of least resistance," and that tends to be suburban and exurban development. That's where the open land is and that's where big box stores are built and the big box stores have corporate lawyers and tax experts who know how to take advantage of local policies. The city claims a victory and sees that tax revenues roll in from the big box retailer and then it's time to lure yet another one (Menard's anyone?).

But when crop yields are compared, downtown is a much better investment. But arcane tax policies punish developers who wants to rehab buildings and fill vacant upper stories with living units.  

Minicozzi had a simple message for us: "We can change tax policy."

During the past two decades, Asheville's downtown development plowed ahead despite daunting tax policies and stubborn banks. Asheville traditionally was known for "trains, tourism and tuberculosis." Trains brought tourists to this mountain community. They also brought TB sufferers escaping the vapors of low-country Carolina. TB sanitariums sprang up. The Biltmore Estate was built. Presidents and rich folks and people struggling to breathe all sang Asheville's praises.

Then came the post-war suburbs. An interstate highway ripped through the center of Asheville and "killed downtown." Minicozzi shows us photos of downtown Asheville in the 1970s and 1980s. Vacant buildings. Those that remained were covered by ugly aluminum fronts. Not a pedestrian to be seen.

A few visionaries came to town and used their own money to get things started. They had to use their own money because city leaders and banks kept saying the same thing: "that won't work downtown." A few buildings were rehabbed into small businesses and housing units. A non-profit real estate development group was formed. Classes were held for kids to learn about the history of downtown.

Still, it was an uphill battle. Some young entrepreneurs wanted to open a vegetarian restaurant. Banks told them to go away. Their attitude seemed to be: "This is western North Carolina -- where's the barbecue?" Still, they persevered and opened the Laughing Seed restaurant. It's now a mainstay in Asheville's downtown. Many other restaurants followed. Cafe too, and galleries and living spaces and craft breweries and all the rest. Tax revenue is huge. The numbers are much larger per acre than they are in outlying areas.

Minicozzi urged us to think of precision agriculture. "Why spread fertilizer in the suburbs and grow weeds when you could be doing it in the city and grow tomatoes?" 

Minicozzi had lots of local stats. He's promised to send the presentation via e-mail. I'll share that with you when it arrives. He's done similar research and presentations in Laramie and Sheridan and communities in Montana (Bozeman and Billings) and Colorado (Glenwood Springs).

When "the hole" came up, as it always does at these kinds of events, John Heyneman noted that downtown Bozeman faced a similar situation. A 2009 natural gas explosion flattened four businesses on one city block along Main Street. A young woman was killed. Everyone had different ideas about what to do with the big hole. But now it's being filled. Heyneman said that other cities have faced similar circumstances, and could serve as models for Cheyenne.

Cheyenne residents can get involved in the city's Historic Placemaking effort. For more info, you can talk to urban planner Jan Spires at 307-637-6251. You can also watch for new streetscaping surrounding the Dinneen redevelopment on 17th Street and Lincolnway. You can see details of this $956,000 public-private partnership at Dinneen Downtown.
Architect's rendering of Cheyenne's Dinneen Building looking west in Lincolnway

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