Why Not Here? How Placemaking Efforts Could Spark Growth in Springfield

There's no doubt southwest Missouri is a great place to live, work and play. But what would our corner look like with some community assets that are actually tangible and realistic? Some of them are already on the way.

By Lillian Stone

Jan 2020

Lexington Convention Center
Photo courtesy Lexington Convention CenterOne of the assets needed in Springfield is a convention center similar to Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky.

Wishful Thinking? We Don't Think So. 

Imagine an economic asset born out of a forgotten natural resource. An attraction that transforms a city from flyover town to up-and-coming outdoor destination. A place for residents to work and play surrounded by stunning scenery, native wildlife and top shopping and dining destinations.

If it sounds too good to be true, think again. We just described Bend Whitewater Park in Bend, Oregon. The urban playground generates $3.6 million annually and represents the sweet spot between public-private partnerships and well utilized natural assets. It’s also an example of stellar placemaking where public leaders make a concerted effort to improve a city’s sense of identity through its public spaces.

Right now, Springfield is engaged in a placemaking exercise of its own as stakeholders develop Forward SGF, the next phase of the city’s master plan. It’s the perfect opportunity to ask ourselves: What if? What if we dream big and what if we acknowledged that game-changing projects like Bend Whitewater Park are within our reach? We’ve dreamed up six projects that could improve southwest Missouri’s sense of place. Who says daydreaming is for slackers?

Photo courtesy Bend Park and Recreation DistrictThe Bend Whitewater Park in Bend, Oregon, opened in 2015 and turned an often dangerous and under-used waterway into a major destination.

Surf the James

Using Springfield's natural resources like rivers and trails can attract visitors and help bring in revenue.

Bend Whitewater Park opened in late 2015 at the site of the Colorado Dam. The popular attraction contains three river channels, one of which is designated for experienced whitewater rafters. Today, the park draws thousands of visitors from around the world to Bend’s charming Old Mill District—but just a decade ago, the dam was a hazard to visitors floating the Deschutes River, and it contributed to one death and several harrowing scenarios involving floaters who found themselves in life-threatening situations. After a $10.8 million investment from a 2012 bond measure, general tax revenue and contributions from private partners and the Bend Paddle Trail Alliance, the park now represents forward-thinking placemaking that can transform a community.

Julie Brown, communications and community relations manager for Bend Park and Recreation, explains that the aforementioned bond measure wasn’t exclusively for Whitewater Park, which is part of the reason the city was able to get public buy-in. “We recognized not everyone is going to be a river surfer or whitewater user,” Brown says. “The bond measure included other assets—like our ice rink, for example—which allowed us to demonstrate that we wanted to represent a lot of different interests. Being able to look more broadly at those different types of experiences made a big difference in community support.”

In 2017, Bend’s Park and Recreation District released an economic impact study that reported the park attracted as many as 33,000 whitewater-specific visitors every year, with up to 250,000 general river floaters heading to the river every summer. All of those visitors bringing their dollars to Bend amounts to a return on investment of 250% over the course of 10 years. It’s worth noting that, since the park was built, Bend has gained recognition as one of the fastest-growing cities in Oregon, with a population rapidly approaching 100,000 and 23.3% growth since 2010 as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2017.

Photo courtesy Visit BentonvilleTo draw in more cyclists, Bentonville, Arkansas, built additional bike trails (left). Many of the trails connect to downtown and areas of commerce, so people can use the trails to commute or enjoy the outdoors.

While Bend Whitewater Park is impressive, other communities closer to southwest Missouri are also capitalizing on natural resources in unique ways. Aimee Ross heads up Bike Bentonville, a subsidiary of Bentonville, Arkansas’s, Convention and Visitors Bureau that works to brand, promote and sell Bentonville as a cycling destination. For Ross, Bike Bentonville is much more than a recreational effort—it’s a way to tell Bentonville’s story. “There are few places around the country that have the level of trail access we have,” Ross says. “You can eat lunch on the town square and hop on your bike, and in less than a quarter mile you’re on a dirt, single-track trail. Not only has it given us the opportunity to promote Bentonville as a tourism destination—it’s also drastically improved the lives of the people that live here.”

That level of connectivity might be compelling for Springfield-based cyclists—especially those who have attempted to ride south on Glenstone and lived to tell the tale. Comfortable cycling aside, capitalizing on trails can have a serious economic impact. Mary Kromrey, executive director of Ozark Greenways, cites a Walton Family Foundation study that found Bentonville’s Razorback Greenway boosted the local economy by $137 million. The Walton family’s commitment is an excellent example of public-private partnerships—the question is, how do we get private partners here in Springfield to commit? Bob Belote, director of parks for the Springfield–Greene County Park Board, has a few ideas. “People intuitively understand that parks are good for families, socialization, health and wellness,” he says. “But sometimes parks are a little overlooked in terms of the way we create a positive business climate for the community.” For Belote, the next step in beefing up area parks and trails is quantifying the park system’s contribution through an upcoming economic impact study. Belote hopes it will be a powerful tool to attract investors. “We’re ready to tell our story through the lens of a positive asset for business community and a healthy economy,” he says.

Photo courtesy Springfield-Greene County Park BoardThe James River is one of Springfield's best kept secrets. While many locals know of the river's highlights, most visitors are not familiar with the popular kayaking and fishing spot.

So, how can Springfield capitalize on its natural resources to stay competitive with communities like Bend and Bentonville? Some local leaders like Kromrey suggest taking another look at existing natural resources. “I’ve lived here since 2001, and my opinion is that the James River is one of our best-kept secrets,” she says. “A lot of people don’t realize it feeds directly into Table Rock Lake, which is a major economic boon for the region.” Kromrey isn’t aware of any community members who are working on making the James more of a focal point for Springfield, but she has ideas for anyone who’s willing to listen. In the future, Kromrey wants to see the James River Greenway trail extended to lead commerce areas to the James, as well as development that enhances the outdoor experience near the now-defunct power plant around Springfield Lake. “We have all of the parts, but we haven’t had anybody put them together,” Kromrey says.

SGF CHECK-IN: Springfield is surrounded by natural resources rivaling those found anywhere in the country. Springfield nonprofits like Ozark Greenways and the Springfield Greene-County Park Board are steadily working to increase awareness and investment around southwest Missouri’s already stellar natural resources.
Photo courtesy Lexington Convention CenterThe massive convention center in Lexington, Kentucky, is just one example of what Springfield leaders are looking at for inspiration when dreaming up a full-size convention center.

Build a Convention Center Yesterday

Is Springfield ready for a larger convention center? If so, where should it go? 

If we asked you to point to Springfield’s convention center on a map, could you do it? Most of us would likely point to the Springfield Expo Center, the 112,000-square-foot exhibition space that houses popular events year-round. Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) President and CEO Tracy Kimberlin will be the first to point out that the Expo Center isn’t a convention center: It’s an exhibit hall with limited breakout meeting space. In fact, Springfield doesn’t have a true convention center, which Kimberlin explains must have four elements: a ballroom, an exhibit hall, breakout meeting rooms and an adjacent or attached hotel within walking distance of overflow hotel rooms. Kimberlin says that, while the University Plaza Hotel and Springfield Expo Center are often billed as one entity, there are a few issues with that classification. “For one, the hotel rooms, ballrooms and meeting space that support the Expo Center are across the street,” Kimberlin says.

A proper convention center isn’t just a matter of, say, having a larger-than-usual Sertoma Chili Cookoff. It’s a standout economic factor for cities like Lexington, Kentucky, which is home to a massive convention center complex that connects to Rupp Arena, home of University of Kentucky basketball. The convention center alone generates an estimated $42 million in annual direct spending, according to Joe Fields, the Lexington Center Corporation’s director of convention management. And that’s just the beginning: The convention center is undergoing a $250 million rebuild with a projected economic impact of $57 million after completion.

Photo courtesy Lexington Convention CenterRupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky, is a great example of the type of convention center Springfield is interested in.

It’s no surprise that convention centers drive this kind of business. “The average convention delegate coming to a city like Springfield will spend an average of $150 per day, per person,” Kimberlin says. “If you look at a city like Lexington, we have about 75% of the occupied hotel rooms that they have, but our revenue is only about 60% of what they have. Part of the reason for that is the fact that they have the convention center, which drives the demand for more upscale hotel rooms.”

Of course, Lexington is larger than Springfield, and it can be difficult to know what kind of convention center would be most beneficial for the Queen City. Kimberlin points to Branson’s convention center as an example, with about 220,000 total square feet. Meanwhile, members of the Springfield Sports Commission are undergoing strategic planning in the sports tourism field, pointing to a sports tourism as a $1.41 trillion industry worldwide. That begs the question: Could Springfield benefit from a convention center and arena complex similar to the one over in Lexington?

“Visitors to the convention center would essentially offset the cost of the facility by spending their dollars here over the course of their stay. They’re spending in our restaurants, shopping in the area and taking in our tourism attractions. Those outside dollars benefit all of us.”
— Matt Morrow, President and CEO of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce

According to Matt Morrow, president and CEO of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, it’s going to take some serious legislative power and community buy-in to get that done in Springfield. Morrow is currently lobbying to enable state legislation that would allow Springfield voters to consider a hotel and motel tax—a tax that could help fund a new convention center. “Visitors to the convention center would essentially offset the cost of the facility by spending their dollars here over the course of their stay,” Morrow says. “They’re spending in our restaurants, shopping in the area and taking in our tourism attractions. Those outside dollars benefit all of us.”

He explains that, while St. Louis and Kansas City both have a 7.5% hotel and motel tax, Springfield’s tax sits at only 5% and fund other amenities like Jordan Valley Park. “We know that people are typically opposed to legislation that has the word ‘tax’ attached to it,” Morrow says. “Still, the good business approach to this would be to ask about the return on the investment.” Morrow urges voters to consider the project’s broader economic impact as well. “The Chamber is focused on trying to attract existing businesses to expand here,” Morrow says. “When a business is looking at a community for expansion, a convention center is a great way to get their attention as they visit through professional conventions.”

If Springfield can get the authority to put the tax increase on the ballot, the vote could take place as early as the spring of 2021. In the meantime, community leaders like Morrow are developing other key elements—finding a private sector partner, for example, and identifying a potential site for the convention center. Some community leaders point to the Bass Pro complex as the perfect site for that new center. Bass Pro Shops Director of Communications Jack Wlezien notes that the City has looked into building a convention center near the Bass Pro complex, holding a feasibility study for the corner of Sunshine and Campbell in 2017 around Wonders of Wildlife’s grand opening. “City leaders were saying, ‘We have the top tourist destination in Missouri here,’” Wlezien says. “The question was whether we should attempt to cluster development around that to capitalize on this influx of visitors.”

SGF CHECK-IN: City leaders are currently lobbying to enable state legislation that would allow Springfield voters to consider a hotel and motel tax, which could help fund a new convention center.
Photo by Margaret Norcross Photography, KCMOThe Kansas City streetcar connects several downtown hot spots, and rides are free for the public.

Ride a Mini Hyperloop to Center City

Free public transportation is on the rise in Kansas City. Could it work in Springfield? 

In the mid-20th century, Kansas City was home to the third-largest streetcar system in the United States. The system closed in 1957, but thanks to a passionate community effort, the streetcar is back. Today, visitors and residents can ride the free KC Streetcar through 2 miles of Kansas City’s downtown. 

Donna Mandelbaum, communications director for Kansas City Streetcar Authority, explains the system opened May 2016 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with an independent board of directors. Rides are free thanks to several funding measures: a pre-specified sales tax, a special assessment on real estate within the boundary and a supplemental special assessment on surface paid parking lots. “This was really brought about with a community advocacy approach and then getting elected officials to prioritize this,” Mandelbaum says. “Having the political will was huge to get this done.”

While the streetcar required considerable investment, the return is undeniable. A September 2019 Ridership Trends study found an average daily ridership of 6,355. Another study by the Kansas City Downtown Council and Kansas City-based software company MySidewalk identified more than 81,000 jobs in downtown Kansas City, which is more than in the downtowns of peer cities including San Antonio and Salt Lake City. “The employment base has grown tremendously since the streetcar launched,” Mandelbaum says. “We’ve seen more than three billion dollars in development within a few blocks of the streetcar line.”

City Utilities of Springfield General Manager Gary Gibson explains that, while a streetcar system is an intriguing possibility, it’s a matter of making it work for Springfield. “Those things are important to the community, but we’re going to have to figure out how we make it work for us,” Gibson says. “Connecting the different districts is going to be very important, especially once we’ve decided on the location of the new convention center.”

“Connecting the different districts is going to be very important, especially once we’ve decided on the location of the new convention center.”
— Gary Gibson, City Utilities of Springfield General Manager

Gibson notes that, while a free trolley system is certainly appealing, City Utilities is limited by Federal Transportation Authority regulations that limit free services. However, a designated self-funded transit authority like Kansas City’s Transportation Development District could be the key. “It’s an issue that I think we can figure out from a community standpoint,” Gibson says. “Especially if we have participation from business owners in the area.”

It’s worth noting that, while it could be easy to make a small trolley system in Springfield’s popular Center City districts, it’s more challenging to broaden the public transportation conversation. “Public transportation gets talked about a lot,” says Scott Miller, who retired as City Utilities general manager in 2019. “But I’m not convinced residents are ready to give up their vehicles and use mass transportation. I just filled up this morning at the gas pump for two dollars and 12 cents per gallon,” he says. “On top of that, unemployment is around three percent. Our bus ridership goes up when gas prices get over four dollars, or when we see unemployment rates go up.” With neither of those factors currently in play, the city seems to crave the independence that comes with traveling by car. 

Brandon Nolin agrees. Nolin is the principal associate at Houseal Lavigne Associates, a community planning consulting firm working with the City of Springfield during the Forward SGF process. “Springfield’s actually about 20 square miles larger than the city of St. Louis geographically,” Nolin says. “But St. Louis has more than double the amount of people per square mile. You need a higher population density to support public transit service.” 

Still, Nolin encourages Springfieldians to make their voices heard during the Forward SGF planning. Houseal Lavigne, City of Springfield staff and members of the Forward SGF Advisory Team conducted 58 community feedback workshops last year; now, Nolin and his team are documenting existing conditions in Springfield, with a visioning and plan development stage to follow at the end of January. That process includes developing a plan for Springfield’s Center City and reaching out for more public input. 

While mass transit systems might be out of reach, tourism-friendly transportation options like a downtown trolley are certainly worth dreaming about. The City of Springfield’s upcoming Forward SGF visioning workshops present an opportunity to contribute to the public transportation conversation. “As part of the Forward SGF process, we’re inviting people to break out into small groups and map out their vision for the community,” Nolin says. With three public Forward SGF workshops taking place later this month, now is the time to make your voice heard.

SGF CHECK-IN:  City leaders aren’t currently working on a plan for tourism-friendly transportation options like the KC Streetcar, but the public Forward SGF workshops are a great place to start the conversation.
Photo courtesy River City CompanyTo improve its riverfront, Chattanooga, Tennessee, built Riverwalk. The 13-mile trail connects retail destinations with urban settings along the river.

Plant Some Damn Flowers

Beautifying the city starts with improving the landscaping and green spaces. 

The Ozark Mountains are full of dazzling natural resources. Remote trails, glistening waterways and vibrant foliage make southwest Missouri ideal for outdoor enthusiasts around the country. Unfortunately, Springfield’s urban center isn’t as spectacular. “There is quite a bit of the city that would benefit from beautification and corridor improvement,” says Mary Lilly Smith, director of planning and development for the City of Springfield. Fortunately, public beautification is currently top of mind at the City office. Late last year, the Department of Transportation selected Springfield to receive $20,960,822 for a game-changing project: the Grant Avenue Parkway, a heavily landscaped parkway that will connect center city attractions including Wonders of Wildlife (WOW) and the downtown area. The grant comes as part of the Department of Transportation’s $900 million Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) discretionary grants program.

According to the City of Springfield’s website, the Grant Avenue Parkway will feature a roomy 10-foot wide pedestrian trail, an artistic bridge over Fassnight Creek and a scenic loop through the downtown area. Sarah Kerner, the City of Springfield’s economic development director, notes that the project will take several years to even begin construction—there’s still a lot of planning, design and property acquisition to do, not to mention public input sessions. Still, she has high hopes given the economic impact of WOW. The City reports that since opening in September 2017, the aquarium has resulted in significantly increased hotel nights and attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors. Connect WOW to downtown Springfield, where public and private investors have contributed half a billion dollars since 1996, and you have one extremely compelling parkway attraction for residents and visitors alike. “Sometimes I feel like Springfieldians can be too humble,” Kerner says. “We don’t want to demand too much. This is going to be a top-of-the-line attraction, and we deserve it.”

The Grant Avenue Parkway is a major step toward prioritizing public beautification in Springfield. It’s also a big win for the dreamers who draw inspiration from other communities like Lexington, Kentucky, known for stellar downtown landscaping punctuated by images of Big Lex, the official symbol of Lexington’s equestrian heritage. Another notable example is Chattanooga, Tennessee, known for its Riverwalk, a 13-mile stretch along the southern banks of the Tennessee River that connects popular attractions and urban neighborhoods. The Riverwalk puts public art to excellent use—including the Trail of Tears passageway filled with art by Cherokee artists. “These were things that told the story of our city,” says Kim White, executive director of Chattanooga’s nonprofit development engine, River City Company.

Some locals might be surprised to know that City of Springfield stakeholders have long sought a way to bring a similar waterfront attraction to town. The goal is daylighting Jordan Creek, nearly a mile of which was covered during downtown Springfield development. Channeled through underground culverts beginning in the 1920s, Jordan Creek still flows under the downtown streets. After decades of dreaming, the first phase of the daylighting process was officially announced last November. The Phase 1 begins later this year, with crews working to remove inadequate drainage tunnels while reconstructing a new stream ecosystem through a designated greenway corridor. The latter will involve plenty of native landscaping, a new bridge at Campbell Avenue and a multi-use path that provides pedestrian and bicycle connections to the Jordan Valley Greenway Trail. Eventually, the daylighting project will bring the creek to the surface, which should reduce flooding, improve water quality and create a standout outdoor amenity to further beautify the heart of downtown between Boonville and Main Avenues.

These developments are huge—but they take time, sometimes decades. In the meantime, Springfieldians like Addison Jones are acting to make Springfield a more beautiful place right now. Jones, an associate at Dake Wells Architecture, prioritizes small but impactful placemaking efforts through Better Block SGF, an extension of the nationwide Better Block Foundation based in Dallas, Texas. Jones started the Springfield chapter about a year ago, connecting with former mentors from Drury, Ozark Greenways and other partners to launch Springfield’s first Better Block installation near the corner of South Avenue and Walnut Street. “We took a single parking space and tried to give it back to the pedestrians for one day,” he says. “We wanted to provide an example of quality public space.” Jones and his crew of volunteers rolled out synthetic turf to cover the space and added cafe seating and potted plants, giving downtowners a place to enjoy themselves and visualize ways they, too, could make Springfield a more beautiful place to live. The same small-scale beautification projects are happening in Lexington, where individual businesses plant their own flower boxes to brighten up the area. They city even recruits community organizations to help water them. To both points, it doesn’t take much to make a place beautiful. It’s like Kerner says: We deserve it.

SGF CHECK-IN: Planning for two major beautification projects—the Grant Avenue Parkway and the Jordan Creek daylighting process—begins this year. The City of Springfield is currently seeking public input for both projects.
Photo courtesy ShutterstockThe Tennessee Aquarium and river area are just two examples of how Chattanooga focused on placemaking. The projects were helped along by the nonprofit River City Company.

Create a Nonprofit Cheerleader 

Other cities have a nonprofit economic development authority to help turn ideas into reality.

When it comes to planning new and exciting urban development, daydreaming is the easy part. In reality, Springfield community leaders face a wide variety of hurdles before they can implement their vision. For communities like Chattanooga, Tennessee, one designated nonprofit economic development authority works to turn community planning dreams into reality: the River City Company, a private 501(c)(3) nonprofit that, for more than 30 years, has worked in partnership with local government, the private sector and the philanthropic sector to support downtown Chattanooga.

While Springfield’s downtown area has several partners engaged in its development—the Downtown Springfield Association and the Downtown Council of Champions, for example—the city doesn’t currently have anything in place that’s comparable to Chattanooga’s River City Company. “For us, it’s about getting the community engaged,” says River City Company Executive Director Kim White. “Planning is a bottom-up, not top-down, process. We want locals to see their fingerprints in our plans for development. It’s the Chattanooga Way.”

“Planning is a bottom-up, not top-down, process.”
— Kim White, River City Company Executive Director

“The Chattanooga Way” is more than a catchphrase—it’s the ethos that guides the entire community. White notes that the credit goes far beyond economic development. It brings Chattannoogans together to celebrate their successes and brainstorm solutions. According to White, the Chattanooga Way has influenced River City Company’s razor-sharp focus on placemaking. “It’s about focusing on what makes our community special,” White says. “Then, we use those things to create an environment that makes people want to stay awhile.”

Perhaps the most high-profile River City Company project was originally dreamed up by University of Tennessee design students: the Tennessee Aquarium. The aquarium, which opened in May 1992 and brought in 1.5 million visitors its first year, was also heavily supported by private investment from John “Jack” Lupton, the heir to the fortune created by the sale of the Dixie Coca-Cola Bottling Company Plant. Sound familiar? It’s easy to draw parallels between Lupton’s investment and contributions from private sector visionaries like Johnny Morris of Bass Pro Shops and Wonders of Wildlife. And while private investment is key to major community development, White points out that Chattanooga has one defining community development factor that Springfield lacks: longer mayoral terms. White explains that U.S. Senator Bob Corker’s term lasted from 2001 to 2005, during which time he was focused on placemaking. The result: a $120 million riverfront renovation plan that still drives placemaking efforts to this day. Today, Springfield’s mayoral term is two years, which makes it challenging for mayors to accomplish real change.

In lieu of bolder mayoral actions and a nonprofit development authority, Springfield’s community leaders are taking action. Community Foundation of the Ozarks President Brian Fogle attended the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce’s 2018 Community Leadership Visit to Chattanooga and was inspired by the power of public and private placemaking contributions. In October of last year, Fogle and his team partnered with the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce for Springfield’s first-ever Philanthropy Summit. During the day-long summit, business leaders and philanthropists heard talks from seven speakers—including Andy Berke, Chattanooga’s current mayor—discussing the impact private dollars make on placemaking efforts. “The idea was to give our guests real, digestible examples of ways philanthropy can improve a community’s overall sense of place,” Fogle says. “Hopefully, we’re inspiring the next wave of community development.” Taking a step back, it’s clear that Springfield is in the midst of a serious placemaking revolution. The Forward SGF process coincides with some of the most exciting community development 417-land has seen in decades. Outside of million-dollar placemaking projects, locals are also making a splash. The team behind the SGF Identity Project is actively lobbying for a new flag that brands Springfield as a compelling place to live, work and play. Community leaders like Daniel Ogunyemi, volunteer coordinator for CASA of Southwest Missouri, are working to make Springfield a more inclusive place for diverse residents and newcomers. And, although Springfield doesn’t have a designated nonprofit economic development authority at this time, there are movers and shakers committed to community-wide economic development. Take the efactory, for example. The downtown entrepreneurial incubator is a subsidiary of Missouri State University’s economic development arm, and it’s currently home to more than 45 startup companies with nearly 80 officing out of the facility during its time in operation, not including individuals using the coworking space. “Prior to efactory’s opening, a lot of people didn’t think you could start a technology startup in Springfield,” efactory Director Rachel Anderson says. “Now, we give people the resources, so they don’t have to move away to seek opportunity.” Each of these projects is a testament to the forward-thinking ethos propelling Springfield’s community leaders—leaders who continue to ask themselves, “Why not here?”

SGF CHECK-IN:  Events like the 2019 Philanthropy Summit seek to inspire placemaking donations from local philanthropists, while small projects—the SGF Identity Project, for one—get everyone involved.
Photo by Brad Shelton PhotographyCommunity members gather at a Hands-On Visioning Session for the South Board District Study. The project was organized by the Chattanooga Design Studio in 2017 and 2018.

Find Our Look and Stick to It

Springfield is searching for its identity. An urban design studio could help. 

To move forward as a community, Springfield has to present a united front. That’s a challenge when, more often than not, the interests of developers and community members seem to be at odds. Take, for example, tensions surrounding the Galloway neighborhood, where community members spent months fighting proposed development of the quaint corridor along Lone Pine Avenue. Or take the case of College Town International, a California-based company seeking nearly $5 million in local property tax incentives to build a large-scale student housing development in downtown Springfield—to the dismay of downtown property owners and stakeholders. If you ask Tim Rosenbury, a veteran architect at Butler, Rosenbury & Partners, it all comes down to conflicting community interests. “On one hand, you can have no development whatsoever,” Rosenbury says. “On the other hand, you can have unregulated development. Urban design represents the third way. Urban design should mediate the interests of all parties.”

Photo by Brandon AlmsQuarry Town, the development in Springfield's Galloway district, came to fruition after prolonged discussions—and some tensions—between community leaders and developers. Purchase Photo

So, how can Springfield mediate all these conflicting interests? Chattanooga, Tennessee, presents one example of a solution: an urban design studio. Chattanooga Design Studio originally launched in 1981 as a project for architecture students, and relaunched a little more than two years ago with the mission of enhancing Chattanooga’s quality of life through urban design. Now, Eric Myers runs the studio as executive director and supervises a team of architects and urban planners that ensures developments in the city’s downtown and riverfront areas meet urban design and aesthetic requirements. “In Chattanooga, we feel like the public realm should be in a direct reflection of our cultural heritage,” Myers says. The studio represents that cultural heritage through a variety of projects—everything from consulting on major development to guiding homebuilding through, a website the studio created to communicate Chattanooga’s architectural tradition to homebuilders and homeowners.

Myers cites the late 1980s as the studio’s big heyday. This was when the studio had a major hand in designing Miller Plaza, a popular civic destination. “That project really cemented the involvement of the design studio in many facets of city planning and design,” Myers says. From there, the studio grew in size and influence. “Back in the day, River City Company could write a covenant for the sale or transfer of property to a developer, and that covenant often required the developer to use the studio’s services,” Myers says, explaining that the system doesn’t quite work like that anymore. “A lot of planners will tell you that people don’t like to be told what to do,” he says, laughing. “It’s a dirty little city planning secret.”

“A lot of planners will tell you that people don't like to be told what to do. It's a dirty little city planning secret.”
— Eric Myers, Chattanooga Design Studio Executive Director

Now, the studio mainly focuses on education and advocacy, and works to facilitate excellence in urban design with various planning agencies in the private and public realms. “A lot of times, when new projects are proposed, we’ve become a de facto keeper of the community’s vision,” Myers says. A lot of that is thanks to various community advocates who direct developers to use the studio’s services. Although developers aren’t required to work with the studio, Myers and his team represent a matter of public integrity that a lot of developers respect.

For architects like Tim Rosenbury, an urban design studio is an attractive possibility. “A lot of us know good design when we see it, but we don’t know how to analyze it,” Rosenbury says. “A community design center is a great resource to empower the general public as community stewards.” Rosenbury points out that the equivalent in Springfield is the Center for Community Studies at Drury University’s Hammons School of Architecture. The problem is, the center strictly showcases student work, but it’s worth noting that Chattanooga’s center also started as a student project. “Outside of that, there is not one advocate driving to work every morning thinking about community design standards,” Rosenbury says.

Although Springfield doesn’t currently have an urban design studio, Rosenbury foresees more community buy-in as locals experience what he calls “Rountree envy.” He explains: “At Cherry and Pickwick, you’ve got a little neighborhood commercial center that the community has really bought into. The neighborhood has agreed that mega-development is detrimental to Rountree’s character; instead, they lean on neighborhood tradition for development. In that way, I think comparing Galloway with Rountree is instructive.”

Photo by Brad ZweerinkAn urban design studio could give direction to community projects, such as the construction of the newly renovated Ozark Mill on the Finley Farms property.

An urban design studio also presents an intriguing possibility for private stakeholders like Megan Stack. Stack is quickly following in the footsteps of her father, Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris, making a name for herself through her Ozark development, Finley Farms. Stack first experienced the power of an urban design studio during the Springfield Chamber’s 2018 Community Leadership Visit to Chattanooga, but she knows the value of architectural heritage firsthand—it’s a major factor in Finley Farms. “The impact of physical environment is so important,” Stack says. “It impacts our quality of life and our physical and mental health, not to mention long-term property values.”

SGF CHECK-IN: Springfield doesn’t currently have an urban design studio. However, as the next generation continues to invest in rediscovering Springfield’s cultural heritage, the possibilities are endless.
Photo courtesy Springfield Area Chamber of CommerceAt the Springfield Chamber's trip to Lexington, Kentucky, the Springfield delegation heard from Lexington’s leaders about “Unique People, Unique Place – Building Community in Lexington.”

A Step in the Right Direction

For more than two decades, community leaders have gathered for the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce’s Community Leadership Visits. The goal? To see what other communities are doing right—and to channel that inspiration into our own community. Recent visits have inspired a wide variety of southwest Missouri projects including Wonders of Wildlife, the 2019 Philanthropy Summit and Jordan Valley Park. Now, another game-changer is already currently underway: installation of city-wide fiber optic internet. The project began in 2018, when community leaders found themselves inspired by Chattanooga, Tennessee’s citywide gigabit Internet service, dubbed “the Gig.” Today, Chattanooga leaders use the Gig to lure more tech companies—and their high-paying jobs—to the growing Southern city. Now, City Utilities has confirmed that fiber optic internet will be installed throughout Springfield, with the first phase of installation planned for later this spring. The project will culminate in more than 1,100 miles of fiber cable installed over the course of the next several years.

Photo courtesy ShutterstockFiber optic internet is on every major city's wishlist, and now Springfield is having it installed over the next few years. The upgrade will improve connectivity and help draw in new tech companies.

Retired City Utilities General Manager Scott Miller explains that fiber optic internet is much better at transmitting data than cable or DSL internet connections.“Over the last decade, we have seen that data and high-speed internet has become a major economic development priority,” Miller says. “The benefits for business owners really can’t be overstated. Overall, it’s going to be a huge factor in increasing the entrepreneurial feel of this community.” Gary Gibson, who took over as general manager in December after Miller’s retirement, also encourages locals to think of fiber optic internet in terms of its placemaking possibilities. “To get that digital infrastructure all over town—we can really start to think outside the box in terms of community resources,” Gibson says. He notes that, in the future, community leaders could use the city-wide internet to power projects like interactive First Friday Art Walk exhibits—projects to further bolster Springfield’s sense of place.