Place-based economic development in Pelahatchie, MS, Urbana, IL, and Stamford, CT at Policy Forum 2016

Elizabeth Tyler speaks about place-based economic development in Urbana, IL as part of Policy Forum 2016.

Pelahatchie, MS, Urbana, IL, and Stamford, CT, are three very different communities with different economies and demographics. However, all of them are using a place-based approach to their economic development, and they have lessons to share with other communities interested in doing the same.

Local leaders from across the country came together in July for the Local Leaders Council Policy Forum 2016, a day-long summit in Washington, DC on revitalizing communities, placemaking, and preventing displacement. Place-based Economic Development was one of three tracks discussed at the conference. Revitalization without Displacement and Jumpstarting Revitalization were the other two.

Pelahatchie, Urbana, and Stamford were included in one session of the Place-based Economic Development track, and the three communities offered different perspectives on this strategy.

“I lived in a town that looked like it was going out of business, not a place you can be proud of,” said Mayor Knox Ross of Pelahatchie, MS. “Our main goal is to create a place we’re proud to call home.” In order to shore up the town’s struggling business community, Pelahatchie worked to attract new businesses to the center of town, encouraging them to located in city buildings, professional offices, medical centers, and more. “We concentrated our efforts on the assets we had,” Ross explained. Those efforts included putting an entertainment venue in the center of the small town and organizing regular outdoor community events there. Even a fresh coat of paint made a big difference in attracting businesses to long-abandoned storefronts.

Urbana, IL, a city with nearly 30 times the population of Pelahatchie, has struggled to bring about new development in part because of higher taxes than its neighbors. In order to compete, Urbana needed to show developers that the city could draw people to downtown spaces. “We love to sit outside, we like to bike outside,” explained Elizabeth Tyler, Urbana’s Director of Community Development. “That’s who we are, so let’s take advantage of that and make a place.”

sipyard-urbana-300pxSipyard in Urbana, IL. Photo by Carl Catedral via Google.

By creating a whole lot more community space, especially outdoors, and developing regular events for those spaces, Urbana was able to use its residents’ love of outdoor activities to its advantage. Now, thousands of people gather each Saturday at Urbana’s farmers market, which features a special curriculum for children. Food truck rallies give local vendors an opportunity for entrepreneurship and give the community an opportunity to come together. Even underutilized areas like a graffiti-covered alley became community spaces. “We had no idea what to do with that space,” Tyler admitted. “With a creative community vision, it was turned into Sipyard, a micro beer garden.”

Stamford, CT a diverse commuter city outside New York City and far larger in population that Urbana, was originally a suburb developed in the 1960s and has since struggled to cope with the state’s disappearing manufacturing jobs. Mayor David Martin explained that despite the wealth of the surrounding suburbs, the city itself struggles financially. “In an urban environment, it’s one devil of a problem,” he exclaimed.

In Stamford’s case, downtown property owners led the way toward place-based economic development, creating a downtown special services district and taxing themselves to pay for it. Their primary focus was how to improve the value of the downtown area, and weekly community programming for all ages is part of their strategy. “It is not my goal to grow the population,” Mayor Martin admitted. “It is my goal to make a place where people will want to live. The growth will follow.”

zumba-mill-river-park-stamfordSunset Zumba in Stamford’s revitalized Mill River Park. Photo by the Mill River Park Collaborative via Instagram.

Now, Mayor Martin says, Stamford’s challenge is to manage the competition between the newly revamped downtown area and the city’s South End. To help the two areas work together instead of against each other, a few years ago the city began a huge revitalization project for the Mill River Park, the land that connects downtown with the South End, with bicycle paths to make it easier for residents and visitors to reach both areas. While the competition still exists, new transportation connections have already made it easier for residents of the downtown area to reach the South End and vice versa.

Mayor Ross shared his immense pride in Pelahatchie’s place-based approach to development. “We went from rolling up the sidewalks at 5 o’clock to having a vibrant corridor,” he noted. “When people see that it’s important for the public, they will know it is important for the private sector.” Urbana and Stamford have also taken that to heart, and redirected space and created programming for the community. If a city’s leaders, elected or otherwise, can recognize the benefits of transforming underutilized spaces into destinations for residents and can get others on board to do something about it, they can revitalize entire neighborhoods. Creating opportunities for the public to come together benefits the private sector and the city as a whole.

Policy Forum 2016 was organized by Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council, a nationwide network of local leaders working to build great communities that are economically strong, inclusive, and sustainable. Read our Storify recap of the event or see the presentations and audio from each session.

Local Leaders Council