'Building a better mousetrap': Free thought flows when MUW class visualizes a city's future

November 6, 2010 9:12:00 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Pedestrian walkways, amphitheaters, bike paths, trams -- even a "space needle" style restaurant. Nothing was off limits as a small group of enthusiastic thinkers aired ideas about Columbus'' future in a Life Enrichment course called City Revitalization: Shaping the Future, at Mississippi University for Women this fall. 


Instructor Robert Woods, a former housing development specialist and urban planner with the cities of San Francisco and Atlanta, was delighted with the interest and knowledge of the core group taking this inaugural 6-week course that concluded Wednesday.  


"It very soon went from a instructor/student type of relationship to a working collaboration, a think tank," he said. 


Marleen Hansen, proprietor of the 1828 Cartney-Hunt Bed and Breakfast on Seventh Street South, was a class participant. 


"We were just a little dreaming, thinking group of people -- with no monetary or political constraints, having fun and dreaming a little bit about things that could change." 




Think bigger 


One of the first concepts discussed in class was thinking outside city and county limits. Census figures from 2000 credit the four counties of Lowndes, Oktibbeha, Clay and Monroe with about 173,000 people, more than 61,500 of those in Lowndes. Woods suggests the population within little more than an hour''s drive from the city could be about 320,000 within 20 years. As the largest population within a 60-mile radius, Columbus and Lowndes County should have sights set on becoming a regional center, tapping into populations it may never have considered being a potential part of its economic base. 


"It''s something you''ve got to capitalize on," stressed Woods, who describes himself as a "technocrat" rather than a bureaucrat. "If you take a regional approach, it offers new definitions and possibilities." 


Sam Kaye, architect, historian, preservationist and director of Design Services for Mississippi Main Street, was a class participant. Kaye designed a comprehensive plan for Columbus in 1975 and is a font of information on the city''s architectural history. 


"It''s true. People have been preaching that for years, to think regionally," Kaye said. Collaboration with adjacent counties can work wonders, too. "Every time we think as the Golden Triangle, it can be a resounding success -- the airport is a good example." Kaye recalls he was living in Memphis, Tenn., when the Golden Triangle Regional Airport joint project came together. "I was so overjoyed." 


Industrial development around the airport in recent years is obviously a huge boon for the Triangle. "It wouldn''t have happened without all three towns," Kaye said, pointing out the research resources at Mississippi State University and the populations of West Point and nearby towns that feed into the workforce. 




Stop here, Dad! 


When the focus of the class turned to city growth, Woods'' urged the group to "build a better mousetrap." 


"There should be no way a car should want to bypass Columbus. You need to put something up that would bring a car to a halt and everyone say, ''Let''s stop here and see what they''ve got going on,''" smiled Woods, pointing out the city has much more to offer than meets the eye of motorists driving through on Highway 82. 


Now, a Space Needle-type restaurant or water park visible from the highway may seem pie-in-the-sky to some, but Woods maintains a signature structure rising about 80 feet above ground level downtown might be worth a look. 


"If you don''t set your trap to catch these people, it''s going to be a missed opportunity for economic development," he said. 




Idea bank 


The exchange of ideas was lively and included a new downtown hotel connected by overhead walkways to an expanded convention center; multi-level parking structures; a park area around the courthouse; tying the proposed soccer complex to downtown and the Riverwalk; connecting MUW to downtown with bike paths; a sunken amphitheater downtown; an entertainment district; and transforming the island into a recreational money-maker. Some of these have been on the city''s long-range burners for years. 


Kaye noted an impending change that could improve the outlook for development on the island, which is connected to the mainland by a bridge at Main Street''s west end. 


"When new maps come out around the first of the year, the island will still be in the flood plain, but no longer in the floodway." The designation is important. "It''s much less expensive and much more convenient and financially feasible to develop something in the flood plain, as opposed to the floodway," said Kaye, noting a floodway calls for certain construction on "stilts," much like the Marina Restaurant near the Lock and Dam.  




Curb appeal 


Everyone''s opinions had weight in the class. Near the top of Hansen''s wish list for the city would be a more appealing corridor on Highway 45 North to downtown (a certified local and national historic district) from the Highway 82 overpass to Franklin Academy.  


"Even gutters, curbs, sidewalks and trees would help," she said. 


George Barnes likes the idea of making the area around the courthouse more park-like.  


"And I think we need more North/South arteries, although I''m mindful that it would be hard to do," he said, adding he feels economic development should be the first priority for now. 


Barnes has taken advantage of several Life Enrichment courses offered by MUW, including those about the oil and gas industry, French for travelers and multiple computer courses.  




Learn something new 


Dr. Barbara Moore is the director of continuing education at MUW and oversees the Life Enrichment program, which also offers Conversational Spanish, Financial Well Being, Yoga, Genealogy, Bridge, Social Media, Flower Arranging, Business Planning and many more short courses. For only $35, participants can sign up for as many non-credit classes as they want. 


"There''s a lot of variety in the courses, and one thing I''ve really noticed is that people taking them really enjoy their classes, and the instructors enjoy them because the participants are really enthusiastic."  


Perneatha Evans is one of those. She left Las Vegas a couple of years ago, moving back to Columbus to be nearer family. She signed up for Woods'' course because she hopes to one day open a franchise restaurant. 


"I knew coming back home the economic situation here and wanted to see what was in the pipeline, how sound everything is." The course helped answer some questions about the viability of going into the restaurant business. 




City planner 


The class consensus is a thumbs up on the recent hire of a city planner for Columbus. 


Patricia Southerland came on board in September, hailing from a planning position in Chattanooga, Tenn. She is also Columbus'' administrator of federal programs, inspections and code enforcement. 


"The City Council just approved Tuesday moving ahead with an updated comprehensive plan, which we have to have by Mississippi state code," she said Thursday. Look for public meetings to begin within the first quarter of 2011. 


"We''re hoping to have a lot of public input as we work with KPS Group Inc. out of Birmingham, who will help facilitate the comprehensive plan that will address, by Mississippi code, three components -- transportation, infrastructure and community facilities."  






In the end, long-range success -- city and region -- will originate with communities invested in themselves and thinking five, 10 and 20 years out.  


"The people must be a part of the process, part of the planning," said Woods. "Solving growth and expanding the economic base needs to be technically driven, with a vision, and not politically driven," he cautions.  


Good growth almost never happens by accident: It takes people pulling together, Woods believes. 


The best mousetraps, after all, don''t build themselves.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.