Smart Growth Stories: A Tale of Three Cities

What kinds of investments allow communities to make a comeback? Places like Reno can learn from Detroit and Oklahoma City.

Bombed out.

If you were feeling cynical, that’s how you might describe the current state of downtown Reno, Nevada. Take a walk down Virginia Avenue and see what I mean. Go past the forlorn casinos, the shuttered liquor store, and the grungy 4th Street bus station. Search in vain for a downtown restaurant or bar that is not attached to a gambling institution. And then, when it is dark, walk in the shadow of the National Bowling Stadium, a building designed for a sport whose own history unfortunately mirrors that of the town in which it stands.

Bombed out.

A few years ago, that’s how you might have described Woodward Avenue in Detroit. People were fleeing the city then, a trend that had continued since the Motor City’s initial decline in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Great old buildings, monuments to a forgotten past, may well have outnumbered the residents and businesses for which they were fashioned. It was the scariest of places – the loneliest of places.

Bombed out.

Almost two decades ago, that’s how you could have literally described part of Oklahoma City. Or as current Mayor Mick Cornett told it at a conference earlier this year, “That’s all people knew about us.”

Each of these places has struggled with decline. But where there is barrenness, there is always a chance at renewal. All across the country, towns are looking to make a comeback. In my role at Smart Growth America, I talk with community leaders and representatives almost every day who ask the same questions. How do we create jobs? How do we attract new residents and new businesses? How do we change our reputation for the better? And then how do we avoid falling down after we’ve gotten back on our feet?

Reno, Detroit and Oklahoma City are important case studies in community revitalization. These three cities are at different points in their transformations, and each offers a lens through which to examine the recovery strategies that work.

For its part, Reno is grappling with the fact that its golden years as a gambling town may well be in the past. There is the newly renovated Riverwalk district, with its stretch of independent restaurants, lounges, and apartments – and then there is everything else.

“Reno has had it easy until recently because it had a monopoly on things that were illegal in the other states,” said Alicia Barber, a historian at the University of Nevada-Reno and the author of “Reno’s Big Gamble,” in a recent New York Times article. “But now it’s facing tough questions for the first time. It’s like a child star that still wants the world’s attention.”

Detroit, meanwhile, is on the upswing but still has a ways to go. Renewed interest in the historic city has home sales on the rise, but whether these changes are permanent has yet to be seen.

“There is an article of faith going on here,” said Sandy Baruah, president of the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce, in a recent Forbes article. “We know it’s not going to be pretty. But the fundamentals, the basic assets in Detroit, are strong enough that it’s worth it, especially when prices are so low. At the end of the day we know there will be a city. It will find a way.”

And then there is Oklahoma City, now seeing a resurgence that has been a long time coming. It’s not just natural gas and Kevin Durant fueling the comeback, either.

The story of how Oklahoma City came to be called one of “America’s Best Places” by Businessweek and one of Forbes’ “Best Places for Business” is one that has its roots in tenacious will, policy change and concerted investments in the city’s downtown. Oklahoma City’s gains in recent years are due in large part to the Cornett Administration’s concerted – and politically risky, at times – effort to enhance, understand and plan for growth. As Mayor Cornett reminds in a video interview with Smart Growth America, Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor did Oklahoma City reestablish itself overnight.

The Cornett Administration is continuing and expanding efforts started by their predecessors to pursue capital improvement programs. That means investing in Oklahoma City to the tune of $777 million, funding that Cornett raised by convincing voters to approve a one-cent sales tax increase. The resulting “Metropolitan Area Projects” (MAPS) gave birth to new and upgraded sports, recreation, entertainment, cultural and convention facilities, helping change the face of Oklahoma City and thus change how the area was viewed by outside investors, job-seekers, press and potential new businesses. The initial MAPS 1 program, approved by citizens in 1993, was so successful that residents recently approved MAP 3 as the third follow up to the original program.

The MAPS initiative’s transparency and emphasis on community-input is refreshing and is one of the primary reasons for its success. As part of the program, the city established a Citizen’s Advisory Board to recommend a list of specific projects to the City Council. The Council approves the list, and the citizens get to vote for or against a limited term one-penny sales tax to pay for that list. The most recent tax will create a 70-acre central park, a streetcar line, a senior aquatics center, trails, sidewalks, and improvements to convention center and the Oklahoma River for public use. This tax sunsets at the end of 2017 and the city gets to decide if it wants to put new projects to a public vote or stop.

These kinds of investments are designed to make Oklahoma City a great place to live and work, a quality that will support the city’s economy even if large employers – or entire industries – leave. This is the challenge facing both Reno and Detroit.

Recognizing this, Detroit has made neighborhood improvements a key part of its recovery strategy. Businesses have taken an active role in this renewal, and are spearheading the renovation of historic buildings and entire streets. Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans has helped move businesses back downtown, and a team of private investors has backed the new M1 streetcar line. Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan, Compuware, DTE Energy and Strategic Staffing Solutions all moved their offices downtown and have also have pledged money to help employees offset the cost of buying, renting or renovating a home in the downtown area. A similar program in the Midtown area with Wayne State University, Detroit Medical Center and Henry Ford Hospital is meeting success, too. The initiatives are even attracting companies that are new to Michigan, including social media titan Twitter and ad agency Commonwealth.

Reno is considering similar strategies. Rather than recruit a new industry to replace the casinos, the “Biggest Little City in the World” is looking to make its downtown a place any employer would be proud to call home.

Perhaps it is because I am a communications professional, but the way I see it, all of this comes down to changing an image. Cities and towns looking to rebound and jumpstart their local economies have to make themselves attractive again. It’s not enough to go out looking like everyone else. How do you make it yours? How do your citizens, your business owners, those faithful to your community, make it theirs?

If you’re a community looking to put yourself back on the map, then, the questions you need to ask are, “What can we do today to make a difference in the next 5 years? What do we want to look like in 10 and 20 years? And what kind of investments will we need to make in order to get there?” That’s what we’re thinking about at Smart Growth America, and that’s what separates the towns that make it and the towns that don’t.

Unlike in Reno, there’s no gambling or chance when it comes to building better communities.

Tom Madrecki is Smart Growth America’s press manager. To learn more about how smart growth investments are paying dividends to communities all across the country, contact him at tmadrecki@smartgrowthamerica.org

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