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Postcards from America

Part Two: The Pillars of a successful city


Hello, again Apopka. It's been a couple of weeks since our last installation of Postcards from America. Since that time, we left New Mexico and spent time in Arizona, visiting the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park and the Grand Canyon before making our way to southern California. 

The Grand Canyon.
The Grand Canyon.

During this journey, we've seen lots of the country. All told, we've stayed at 18 different addresses, 14 states, and four time zones. We've racked up about 11,000 miles on the road and over 100 hours of drive time.

Denise and I have learned and experienced a lot in these nine months on the road.

I have learned that there is great cuisine in every corner of this country. The restaurants have been outstanding everywhere we have traveled. And most every region can brew great beer. The local IPAs have been amazing no matter where we dine.

I have also seen and experienced many towns and cities that are moving their municipalities forward in very positive ways. And in these experiences, I have found there are cornerstones to successful communities that I see wherever we travel.

I'm calling this article "The Pillars of a Great Community". It's a subjective, non-data-driven list of qualities I see around the United States in cities moving in the right direction. I'll publish the first four in this article and the last four in part three next week.

And as I said in part one, this is not a critique of Apopka. Certainly, it has some of these pillars, and none of the cities I have visited possess all eight. These are simply observations I have seen as we journey America.

Pillar #1 - Local Patriots

In many cities, there are individuals who just love where they live, and they make things happen locally - to everyone's benefit. 

We visited friends in Redlands, California, and had lunch at a restaurant in front of a business called ESRI. It's an enormous compound with about 3,800 employees - mostly upper-income.

According to Wikipedia, Jack Dangermond is an American billionaire businessman and environmental scientist who co-founded, with Laura Dangermond, the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI). It's a geographic information systems (GIS) software company.

As of October 2021, his estimated net worth is $8.6 billion.

Dangermond was born and raised in Redlands. He could have headquartered ESRI in a larger city or the tech-friendly Silicon Valley area but chose his hometown instead. 

And Redlands is prospering because of it.

In December 2017, Jack and Laura Dangermond donated $165 million to establish the Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve on the Pacific coast—the largest-ever gift to The Nature Conservancy. They also signed The Giving Pledge - which is a promise by the world's wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to charitable causes.

In January 2020, Jack and Laura Dangermond donated $3 million to the Museum of Redlands fund.

They are the epitome of local patriots.

It's great to have a couple of billionaires lying around your city investing millions into the local area, but local patriots can come in all shapes, sizes, and net worths. Having a solid base of residents who are proud of their community and willing to volunteer their time, effort, and treasure to make it a better place will work wonders. They can contribute to the municipality in so many ways. And when prominent business owners and residents feel pride in their community, it can mean a great deal.

Pillar #2 - Public Private Partnerships

AJ Whittenberg Elementary School in Greenville, SC
AJ Whittenberg Elementary School in Greenville, SC

A public-private partnership is generally a long-term arrangement between a government and private sector institutions. Typically, it involves private capital financing government projects and services up-front and then drawing revenues from taxpayers and/or users throughout the PPP contract.

But a public-private partnership can be so much more.

Early in our trip, we visited Greenville, South Carolina - a city forced to rebound from the loss of its textile industry and a fledgling downtown. Greenville will be the focus of a future part of this series, but one of the things they did well was to create a PPP to bring an amazing institution to its city - the AJ Whittenburg Elementary School of Engineering.

Placed in a low-income part of Greenville, the city runs the school, but Greenville business heavyweights like GE, BMW, and Michelin support the school. A.J. Whittenberg Elementary was founded on the strength of these public-private partnerships that welcome a variety of engineering-focused and community-minded organizations into the school to support students further and bring engineering to life.

In 2020, the school was awarded the National Blue Ribbon for Schools award and named an “Exemplary, High-Performing School” by the U.S. Department of Education. National Blue Ribbon is the highest honor that any school, public or private, may receive.

It's a creative use of a PPP that benefits the entire city.

Pillar #3 - Libraries

The Columbus Metro Library in Columbus, OH
The Columbus Metro Library in Columbus, OH

Between the years of 1883 and 1929, Andrew Carnegie, a titan of the steel industry and one of the richest men in American history, built 2,509 libraries across the world - mostly in the United States.

It was perhaps one of the greatest philanthropic ventures in history.

By the time the last grant was made in 1919, there were 3,500 libraries in the United States, nearly half of them Carnegie libraries.

It may seem that with the emergence of bookstores, Amazon, and the internet, a library's importance has faded. But libraries still play an essential role in successful local communities. 

People come to libraries not only looking for information but also to find themselves and their communities. Mothers join baby story-times clubs, elderly people attend events, and find ways to connect with people. While teenagers meet up in libraries with their study groups for teambuilding or school projects, and readers discuss current events in the periodical’s rooms. In addition, libraries serve as community centers for diverse populations by supporting non-English speakers to help them integrate into the community. Hence, public libraries often collect books in different languages and hire librarians or staff who are multilingual. Furthermore, for artists and art enthusiasts, public libraries can provide a place to arrange exhibitions and promote themselves. One of the biggest values to be mentioned is that public libraries provide access to the arts for all visitors, normally free of charge.

Pillar #4 - A flourishing downtown

Downtown Asheville, NC
Downtown Asheville, NC

All over the country, Denise and I have enjoyed a range of vibrant downtowns. And you might think it takes a big city to make it successful, but nothing could be farther from the truth.

In North Carolina, we visited downtowns in larger cities like Asheville, smaller towns such as Hendersonville, and even small villages like Tryon that clearly understood the value of a downtown or main street setting.

In Columbus, Ohio, they break the downtown into districts - like the Arena District, the Short North (arts and entertainment district), and the Brewery District.

In California, Santa Barbara, with a population of about 87,000, residents and tourists enjoy several blocks of walkable downtown shops, restaurants, taverns, and a flourishing farmer's market on the weekends.

According to multiple sources, including the book "Our Towns", the strongtowns.org website, multiple articles on downtowns, and my own observations, here are some of the reasons a vibrant downtown is vital to a city:

  • Downtowns are leading economic drivers for their cities.

Despite their small citywide footprint of approximately 3%, downtowns are economically in-demand and lucrative districts, warranting continued investment. Downtowns represent 11% of citywide assessed land value, 30% of citywide employment, 40% of citywide office space, and anywhere from 13-64% of the citywide tax revenue. This means that for every 1% of citywide land, downtowns contribute approximately 10 percent of citywide tax revenue.

Because of a downtown's productivity, every dollar invested has the potential to generate great returns. To maintain a downtown's economic impact, cities will need to continue investing there, both to cushion the loss from shrinking federal funding and to compensate for the evolving nature of tax revenues.

  • Downtowns are for everyone.

Part of a downtown's value proposition is its diversity, inclusivity, and open-mindedness. Downtowns are positioned to be highly inclusive places, given their access to opportunities and essential services for all users. Cities should seize the opportunity to embrace a collaborative approach, engaging community cooperation, public and private leadership, thoughtful planning, and a climate that encourages strategic development designed to build community wealth, inclusion, and accessibility.

  • Downtowns have intrinsic cultural significance.

This defines the city and regional brands by offering historical and cultural assets, recreation and entertainment opportunities, and participation in civic activities. As downtowns evolve, we should encourage balancing authenticity and economic growth.

  • Downtowns are resilient.

A downtown's size, value, proximity, density, diversity, mixed-use nature, and geographic location are powerful resiliency assets. Downtowns consistently and significantly rank higher than their cities when it comes to Walk Score, Bike Score, and Transit Score (85-90 compared to 52-57). Downtowns also average six parks per square mile, have 75% commercial land use, and have higher rates of non-single-occupancy vehicle commuters compared to citywide figures. These assets equip downtowns to more readily adapt to potential economic, social, and environmental stresses.

In Part Three of Postcards from America: The pillars of a successful city - #5-8

Postcards from America, Pillars of a Successful City, Downtowns, Libraries, Grand Canyon


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  • MamaMia

    Reggie, so happy you and Denise could take these past nine months, and go see America. I'm jealous, as I would love to do something like that, but I would never get my husband to leave home for that long, or that far away. The Carolinas did have to change course after the textile industry shut down, and moved overseas. That I know, as someone who was raised there in the Carolinas. In some cases, the giant old textile mills, left standing to rust away, have been renovated and redeveloped into upscale luxury apartments. My father and I went to Asheville, N.C. many times, when I was a child, buying or selling truck loads of produce at the big farmer's market there. It was my dad's second job, as he was into the hotel industry, as his first career choice. I don't know what it was about Asheville, NC, but just about everytime when we would go there, I would get very sick. My parents couldn't figure it out, nor could I. I still loved going there, however. Asheville has the tourists to back their economy, unlike many other cities. I look forward to reading more about your experiences from traveling across the US, Reggie.

    Monday, March 6, 2023 Report this