Birney Imes: Developing a shared vision

May 23, 2009

Birney Imes - [email protected]


"A vision without a plan is a hallucination." --Thomas Edison 




On Friday about 15 people spent the afternoon dreaming about the future of Columbus. Leading the conversation was Randy Wilson, who in September will lead the community in something called a charrette. 


Wilson, a graduate of Mississippi State''s school of architecture, runs Community Design Solutions in Columbia, S.C. According to his company''s Web site, a charrette is "an intensive and inclusive planning process undertaken by an interdisciplinary design team over a brief period of time. The beauty of the charrette is that it allows the community to participate in planning their future and see the results immediately." 


A tall, slender man who looks to be in his mid-40s, Wilson is blessed with a disarmingly friendly manner and the ability to remember names of everyone in the room after a single introduction. 


Charrettes were widely used on the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina. Mississippi University for Women used one in developing their campus master plan in the wake of the 2002 tornado. Wilson has just finished one in Eupora and, before that, Carthage. 


In September Wilson will return with a team of experts who with the community input will conduct a planning and visioning blitzkrieg for Columbus. The process will produce a comprehensive report, and if the past is any guide, a to-do list focused on making our community more livable, attractive and connected. Economic development, in a real sense. The meeting Friday was intended to get a sense of the issues residents deem most pressing.  


Everyone agreed a master plan should be a priority. The group suggested Wilson consider best uses for the Island, Riverwalk and the old bridge, Burns Bottom, Magnolia Bowl, Propst Park and the midtown area and the warehouse district on Southside where the Marble Works was once located.  


Kevin Stafford of Neel-Schaffer mentioned the sportsplex. According to Councilwoman Susan Mackay, the city council, supervisors and the Parks and Rec board in the next few weeks will be looking at cost analysis and feasibility studies of the three sites under consideration. 


Someone asked if it might be best to wait until the charrette to make the sportsplex decision. "We''ve been discussing this eight years," Stafford offered. 


Seems logical they would, they being the three boards making the decision. 


Councilman Jay Jordan mentioned Columbus'' lack of infill, or space for new housing. The need for zero-lot housing and first homes was mentioned. 


Some have a problem wrapping their mind around this, but Burns Bottom sits waiting, full of potential to become a residential development adjacent to what is the most desirable area within the city, downtown. It would take a visionary developer with deep pockets to make it happen. 


If the farmers'' market could be converted into a multi-use public space (keeping the market there) and the area were surrounded with creatively designed housing; if the old river bridge could be spruced up and made into a promenade; if the Riverwalk could be extended to include the area cleared in the lower end of the Bottom; if the Island could be developed in some planned and coherent way; if Magnolia Bowl could be converted into a public space of some sort, a performance venue, walking trail or as Mackay suggested the running track restored; if, if, if ... OK, I''m dreaming. 


Bruce Hanson allowed that Columbus may be winning the war of the smokestacks, but it''s losing the equally important competition for the people who work in and run those operations. Too often they''re choosing to live in Starkville and elsewhere. We''ve focused little attention collectively on the quality of life, the esthetic enhancements and the retail options that attract residents who have a choice, the group said. 


In a conversation afterward, a participant familiar with the inner workings of Starkville and Columbus said Starkville is much more vigilant in enforcing sign ordinances and building codes. "These ''cowboy'' contractors tell me they''d much rather work over here," he said. 


The group agreed on the need for consistent signage and graphics throughout the community. Highway 45 and in midtown on 182 were cited as areas in need of attention. 


So what makes this study different from the many studies this community has conducted and then did nothing with it? 


Jan Miller, who as central district manager for Mississippi Main Street is riding heard on this project, says the difference will be ongoing local support and an entity driving the plan, the local Main Street organization. 


Miller emphasizes that the charrette will look at more than downtown. Our downtown is our showplace, says Miller. "But, once you get your heart beating correctly you have to get all the other arteries working right," she said. 


For his part Wilson said something I hope we will keep in mind: "To plan is human; to implement is divine." 




Farmers'' market 


There is something spiritually nourishing about the Saturday morning farmers'' market. I don''t quite know what it is, maybe it''s the people the market attracts. The items for sale. The wholesomeness of it all. Little girls trying to give away kittens; a mother and daughter selling herbs they grow together; a smiling, clear-skinned Mennonite girl selling her baked bread. 


Johnny Gilmer, the watermelon man, was there Saturday morning without melons. He''s got 20 acres under cultivation. Not going to tell you where he''s growing them, but they''re blooming. Land used to grow watermelons takes six years to recover. Johnny thinks he''s going to have a good crop if it would only warm up a bit. Expect the goods around July 4, he said. 




Write or phone Birney Imes at The Commercial Dispatch, 516 Main St., Columbus, MS 39701, 328-2424, or e-mail him at [email protected]

Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.