Talent, Place and Opportunity

Did you know that 58% of a city’s success is based on the percentage of the population with a college degree? According to CEOs for Cities, “each additional percentage point improvement in aggregate adult four-year college attainment is associated with a $763 increase in annual per capita income.”

With three colleges located in our downtown, Columbia is pretty consistently ranked among the nation’s smartest cities–but is that enough? If a city simply develops talent and then sends it away, it’s making the investment but losing out on the rewards. How then does a city keep these graduates?

There are plenty of good ideas out there (check out these great initiatives for recruiting and retaining interns) but Carol Coletta of Coletta and Company summed it up nicely at a recent International Downtown Association conference. Because cities live and die based on local talent, you need to make your city sticky. And you do that by creating both opportunity and a sense of place. People need access to jobs but they also want to “stumble onto the fun.”

What does this mean for downtowns?  We need to go beyond managing clean and safe programs and start aggressively working towards policy changes that will encourage entrepreneurship, increase density and create a strong sense of place. Once you start doing that, you’re well on your way to retaining all those talented graduates you’ve been investing in.

Local Support Crucial for the Arts

It seems like only yesterday that David Wilson, Paul Sturtz and their ragtag bunch of film buffs pulled together the very first True/False Film Festival. Kudos to this group for creating one of the best known documentary film festivals in the country and shining an international spotlight on downtown Columbia.

The key to success for any community that wants to cultivate arts and culture is a group of locals that are willing to support the arts–and that’s certainly the case here. It’s not just the international film community that descends upon Columbia each March.  Local residents stand in line at 8:00 am in the morning to purchase tickets. Schools and churches open their doors for screenings. Columbians live blog the festival.  Organizers estimate that about 80% of attendees are local.

So here’s to True/False and the people that support it!

The Limits of the Built Environment

Is it smart people that make cities thrive or is it a great built environment?

From Witold Rybczynski’s Slate article on Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier:

Glaeser defines the city as a “mass of connected humanity.” His emphasis on human capital is important because politicians and planners tend to overvalue the physical environment. They encourage cities to look for the Next New Thing, whether it’s pedestrian malls, downtown stadiums, iconic museums, or light rail. It is as if 13th-century European cities, envious of Venice’s great commercial success, had said “Oh, that’s the trick—we just have to turn our streets into canals.” 

A New Downtown Hotel

We spend a lot of time here trying to make The District more attractive and more vital, but how often do we think about our gateways? They are the doors to downtown and create a first impression in the mind of a visitor.

The gateway at Providence and Broadway could use some improvement–and the consultants who put together the Downtown Columbia Planning Charrette tend to agree. Rangeline, our entrance from the north, is currently undergoing a major face lift thanks to efforts by Columbia College and the city. Coming into The District from the east is an attractive route, traveling past Stephens Lake Park and through the Stephens College campus. Until of course, you hit the Regency Hotel. It’s one of the first downtown buildings you see and while it may have had a charming mid-century modern feel when it was originally built, its 40-year old facade and crumbling parking lot can’t make a great impression now.

The Downtowner

The Regency

The most recent owners have done everything they can to improve this hotel but even they understand that the best solution is to build a new one. Hotelier Dave Parmley wants to do just that–build a new Doubletree, as part of their upscale brand designed for downtowns. He’s applied to the city for TIF funding to make this happen and received the go ahead from the TIF Commission. On Monday night, he brings his appeal to the Council. The District Board supports this project and looks forward, not just to a new downtown hotel, but a more attractive gateway into The District.

The Broadway

An Arts District Comes Into Its Own

Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with several of the movers and shakers in the North Village Arts District at a Tourism Breakfast hosted by the Columbia Business Times and I have to give them all kudos for what they’ve helped create.

Most of us remember when the area north of Broadway was more warehouse than art house. I even remember when we started calling it the North Village Arts District and the often tortured explanations as to what it was.  (Well, there’s these new art studios…) Now, thanks to a lot of  hard work, artist recruitment efforts and property redevelopment, we’re seeing a snowball effect in this area. The addition of PS: Gallery and Pure Exposure in the Berry Building is only helping build momentum. (Take a look at their Facebook page to get a sense of how many creative businesses have located there recently.)

PS Gallery

If you look at master plans for downtowns across the state–and the nation, for that matter–many include an arts district with studios, galleries and a community of creative people. It’s not just a development goal, it’s an economic development one as well. While our arts district is progressing so well, other towns have not been so lucky. It takes a lot of things to make that happen–a vital and energetic center city, a wealth of city and non-profits who support the arts, affordable and eclectic studio and galley space, and a community of people willing to support the arts through their purchases.

So next time you’re strolling along Broadway, take a quick walk up to Walnut and Orr and check it out for yourself.

Marketing Your Parking

A photo of the inside of a parking garage goes up on the screen.  It’s well-built, well-lit and clean.

“This is not a good parking garage.”

What?  I would kill to have our city’s garages look that nice.

Jeff Fluhr of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Todd Pierce of Pictoform and Allison Billings of  Charlotte Center City Partners all contributed to a fantastic seminar at the recent IDA Conference in Fort Worth.

But back to the garage.  An engineers dream maybe, but how did appeal to the customer?  Where was the signage?  Where was the color? For that matter, where was the brand?  The overarching theme was that parking–just like your downtown–needs a brand and a strong marketing campaign to be successful.

Pierce outlined 5 keys to brand success when it comes to parking:

  1. Memorable
  2. Affordable
  3. Convenient
  4. Clean & Safe
  5. Easy


  • Have all parking signs and collateral material reflect your brand. 
  • Keep an eye on the first 30 ft–keep it well-lit and clean and take out the trash cans.
  • Paint the wall around the pay station a bright color so people can find it.
  • Have signs at the entrance highlighting parking fees.
  • Try to standardize parking fees, at lease the first hour, to make it easier for the customer.

Startup Strength

If one excludes startups, an analysis of the 2007 Census data shows that young firms (defined as one to five years old) still account for roughly two-thirds of job creation, averaging nearly four new jobs per firm per year. Of the overall 12 million new jobs added in 2007, young firms were responsible for the creation of nearly 8 million of those jobs.

The End of McMansions?

Time Magazine had an interesting piece on how the era of the McMansions, houses that top out at over 3,000 square feet. It seems that “from 1950 to 2004, the average size of an American home jumped from from 983 square feet to 2,349 square feet.”  Now this number is finally dropping. In 2010, only 9% of people are looking for a house over 3,000 square feet.

That reminds me of a fairly lively discussion I had with a gentleman at a downtown planning meeting.  When the consultant asked about downtown residential, this gentleman’s recommendation was to tear down several of the smaller homes surrounding our downtown and build a 3,200 square foot home in their place. Apparently, his wife would like to live downtown but he wants a lot of “living space” and this was the solution he came up with.

I’m always surprised that some plans actually start this way. No sense of scale, history or appropriateness–trying to use solution from somewhere else to solve problems downtown.

Economic Indicators

I just had a conversation with one of the members of the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission.  He says he’ll know the economy is picking up when meetings are once again 3 hours, rather than only 30 minutes.

Highways and downtowns.

It always amazes me the number of cities who have major highways separating tourist attractions from downtown.

Photo courtesy of Urban Review STL

Downtown St. Louis, home of one of the most iconic images in our nation, has I-70 running between downtown and the Arch, which is built adjacent to the riverfront.  Pedestrians have to cross an overpass that is heavily trafficked by cars, unattractive, noisy and potentially dangerous.

The group City to River has a proposal to address this disconnect and beautify the area.  (You have to check out their website for before and after photos.)  However, this is a major task–what would this city be like if someone had said years ago, “Why in the world would we want to build a highway along our riverfront?”

On a recent visit to Seattle, I had the dubious pleasure of walking along the Alaskan Way Viaduct. This highway (as well as a very steep hill) separates the waterfront from downtown and Pike’s Market.  Although the city and private landowners have worked to build pedestrian connections, they’re hard to find if you’re unfamiliar with the city.  I often walked blocks out of my way trying to find a way “in” to downtown.

Although the stairs are also somewhat daunting, dealing with a natural feature of the landscape is very different than trying to fix a poor design choice.

There’s a current effort by the People’s Waterfront Coalition to replace the highway with a boulevard similar to San Francisco’s Embarcadero and we wish them the best of luck.

Find me at www.discoverthedistrict.com.