A Revitalized Downtown Leads Community Comeback?

“It is not necessary to change, survival isn’t mandatory.” – W. Edwards Deming

Not all change is good, not all change is bad, often change is neither good nor bad, it just is. When we review change in the review mirror, we can often evaluate what the ramifications of those changes have been. In the case of most small and mid-sized communities, the change that has taken residents and business away for the city core have certainly opened upnew opportunities, but at what cost?  Much of this change is a ticking time bomb that has created an unsustainable model when measured over the course of decades and future generations?

As we moved away from the urban model of living to a more suburban model of living, on one hand, it has expanded our communities and many of our opportunities.  On the other hand, it has also created an uncalculated financial burden that many communities are just now coming to grips with. Let me further explain by using a paragraph that I recently read in strongtowns by Rachel Quednau.

I quote, “When our towns changed course in the 1950’s and 60’s from the traditional to the suburban model of development, they were setting themselves up for this financial mess – only they didn’t do the math on maintenance cost that would’ve showed them that. They just kept building roads and subdivisions and strip malls. Today, we’re left to figure out how to pay for it all, and because so many homes and streets were built at the same time, they’re all falling apart and in need of maintenance at the same time. “

Let me continue Quednau’s piece, “While a traditional street built hundreds of years ago may have house 40-50 familiesand businesses in compact, modest buildings, the typical suburban street now houses just over 20 families in homes with large yards, spread apart from one another. We have half the number of households paying for a street that’s twice as big. No wonder the math doesn’t work out.”

It isn’t whether urban or suburban are right or wrong, both have their strengths.  It is simply that the suburban financial structure, unless modeled and planned for decades out is built in such a way that it will eventually become a huge financial burden to communities. That is even more so for communities that struggle with lower incomes and poverty.  Small or mid-sized communities need to understand that there is a way out of this dilemma, but it involves new thinking and bold actions.  Let me offer just a few.

Knowing that altering the current taxing system would take a yeoman’s effort requiring years of time, communities must adopt strategies that can be implemented quickly. Finding ways to return residents and business to their downtowns can start the change. Adopting strategies such as tax reduction or elimination for new downtown projects for a limited amount of time is a start.  Encouraging and even incentivizing the revitalization of older buildings into loft apartments and better business opportunities should be a community’s top priority.

Adopt the “if you build it, they will come” strategy for those downtown resident and business efforts. This pays for itself over time, as infrastructure upkeep is lower over the long haul.  The more people sharing this financial burden reduce the pressure on the community as it relates to upkeep and so forth.

One need not just consider the core. Look at the neighborhoods surrounding the core; what can be done to assure that all that space is fully utilized. Assuring that all those homes are occupied or torn down so new homes can be built is a must. Providing incentives for this ought to be a top priority. Simply by limiting as best you can the additional building outside of your current community footprint, you can avoid adding to the already difficult to maintain community footprint. We aren’t advocating greater control of where people build, but taxing bodies need to recognize that is a long-term burden and tax accordingly.

One of the best strategies a community can adopt is not falling for the same traps that we have been sucked into. As you build further out from your core, know and understand the financial ramifications of this strategy moving forward. Most communities already have to many roads that are failing, think twice before adding more.

John A. Newby is the author of the "Building Main Street, Not Wall Street" weekly column dedicated to helping local communities keep their consumer dollars local. He can be reached by email at: john@UniquelyUSA.net