Dreaming big: Phenix City voters need bold, not bland

by Jim Lynn

VOTING FOR WORDPRESS POST

Voters deserve to know who’s willing to dream big

COLUMBUS LEDGER-ENQUIRER (McClatchy Newspapers), 3 July 2016

By Jim Lynn

Two men in line at the Piggly Wiggly at Phenix Plaza struck up a conversation, talking around two others.  “Hey! When did you get out?” the one with a can of sardines asked the other.

“Last month,” the second man yelled back.  The two went on to laugh about their months in the slammer and asked about each other’s families.  The half-minute exchange made others in line smile, but it also reflected in a deeper way some of the challenges facing Phenix City – and Phenix City voters – this election year.

Phenix City’s mayoral and city council election is August 23.  Mark your calendars.

In this and in most local campaigns, candidates steer clear of anything that looks remotely like an issue.  Keep it bland, shake a lot of hands, stir no controversy.  Hand out brochures that say where you went to high school and where you go to church.  It’s the plain-vanilla, “I want to move Phenix City forward” approach, a cynical strategy that’s downright condescending to voters.  Our community deserves better.

Before election day, voters and journalists need to ask tough questions, and candidates need to step up and discuss specific ideas to make our community a better place.

Perhaps…

On economic development:

  • What’s next with downtown and how do we get there? How would you market the riverfront to major developers?
  • Where do you stand on Riverview redevelopment? Should the new, riverfront neighborhood be developed at market-rate pricing for professionals?  Or should most of the new units be subsidized or affordable housing, with part of the development available for current public housing residents?
  • Do you support stronger cooperation with Columbus and Lee County on land use and economic development issues? How do we add to, rather than compete with, the rest of Uptown?
  • How do we redevelop the neighborhoods north of Riverview?
  • Do you favor tax increment financing or tax allocation districts to help fund improvements?

On government:

  • Where do you stand on an elected school board? Why?
  • What sort of person should be our next city manager?

On livability:

  • How can we protect the architectural integrity of south Summerville Road? How can we encourage restoration in that corridor?
  • Do you favor bringing back curbside recycling? How would you pay for it? Would you favor some sort of recycling partnership with Columbus?
  • Do you favor construction of sidewalks in north Phenix City (Summerville and Riverchase)? How would you pay for them?  How can we make Summerville and Riverchase safer for runners and bicyclists?
  • What would you do to help protect existing neighborhoods against commercial encroachment?
  • What steps should we take to protect the sensitive ecology of the Chattahoochee riverfront in north Phenix City against future development?
  • What would you do to improve the appearance of the U.S. 280 Bypass? How would you pay for it?
  • Would you favor enforcement of existing sign regulations? Would you support a complete ban on billboards, even if sign companies threaten to sue?
  • What would you do to help bridge the social and political gaps among the “three Phenix Cities”—northside, southside and central? How do we eliminate distrust and a presumption of racism among residents of the three city council districts?

There are plenty of other questions out there.  And they should be asked.

Among the thorniest questions facing downtown, for example, is how to deal with two very different socio-economic constituencies. The demand for better riverfront dining, retail, and residential options appears strong. But the W.C. Bradley Real Estate group that hopes to rebuild the shopping center at Broad and 13th is tied down with long-term leases for existing merchants.  Those merchants appear to do well supporting a large community of mostly minority and mostly low-income shoppers.

Once those leases expire, in about seven years, who represents the new market for downtown retail?  The two former inmates in the checkout line or students and professional workers?  The transition of Phenix City’s riverfront and downtown into a vibrant place to shop, dine, live and learn must happen. But there are impacts to public life that public officials will need to wrangle.  How do you deal with a mixed market for both Citi Trends and Starbucks?  How do you attract northsiders and downtown office workers to walk across the bridge when the first thing they see are homeless men holding cardboard signs asking for change?

We could easily end up with a riverfront hamstrung with a perceived safety problem.  Or we could end up with a very successful riverfront that’s unaffordable for the thousands of low-income residents in the neighborhoods around it.

In 2003, when the current riverfront plans were developed, Bill Turner promoted a vision of “One Uptown.” It’s a view of Uptown as a community with the Chattahoochee River running through it, not dividing it.

The vision is not fully realized. A chunk of Riverview has been razed. Three major structures – the Troy University building, the adjacent Marriott hotel and public parking garage – have been completed.  Utility lines have been buried and streetscapes improved. But there’s more to be done.

Voters and reporters should be asking “what next?”  Candidates should be pushed to discuss the issues of how to make a revived riverfront a reality.  A riverfront that doesn’t disenfranchise those around it but at the same time can pull in the grass-fed-steak-after-work crowd.

In a recent conversation, Columbus State University president Chris Markwood said that when he came to Columbus last year, Turner, the elder statesman and benefactor, gave him some simple yet bold advice:  “Dream big.”

Turner has given that community-changing advice to others over the years, including those involved in the early stages of the Phenix City riverfront efforts.  But Phenix City risks losing that drive to “dream big” with less-than-big plans for the Riverview property and a lack of a coordinated drive to redevelop the riverfront and Broad Street beyond what’s already in play.

Discussion about the future use of the rest of the Riverview public housing community puts the emphasis on new residential units mostly allocated for public housing residents and for those using subsidized Housing Choice Vouchers (sometimes called “Section 8” housing).

That’s not dreaming big.

It fits the pattern of most “mixed income” redeveloped public housing sites around the nation, including the Peabody (Ashley Station), Baker Village (Arbor Pointe) and Booker T. Washington (Columbus Commons) properties in Columbus.  Only a small portion of these developments are allocated to market-rate sale or rentals, and few are actually sold or rented at market rate because of their locations.

But Riverview – like Chase Homes across the river – is different. The location, on the Chattahoochee and near the center of Uptown activity, demands a bigger dream, one that means selling the property to a sizeable residential development concern with the wherewithal to create an upscale community with amazing views.

An upscale development at Riverview is also critical to efforts to draw solid shops and restaurants to Phenix Plaza and the rest of the riverfront.  Not only are chains and their brokers looking for commuter traffic and the evening downtown crowd, but also for nearby neighborhoods with incomes high enough to support them.

Downtown, with all its potential and uncertainty, is just one issue among many that should be discussed between now and August 23.  Residents in every neighborhood have their own concerns.

Yes, it’s good to know where the candidates went to high school and where they go to church.  But Phenix City voters deserve to know which candidates are willing to step up and talk specifically about the city’s challenges and potential solutions.  We deserve to know which candidates plan to dream big.

Jim Lynn is a former reporter and editor for the Ledger-Enquirer and the Wichita Eagle, where he was part of a Knight-Ridder experiment on issue-based local elections coverage. He now helps manage client communication for TSYS and writes occasionally for these pages.  Lynn36867@aol.com

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