Spotlight on Sustainability: Columbia, TN

James Campbell Boulevard, Photo courtesy City of Columbia

The heart of Columbia, Tennessee lies along a highway and commercial corridor; the James Campbell Boulevard. It was built at the city’s peak when demand was high for retail space and office buildings, but in the past several decades the needs of the City have changed. With the third slowest growth rate in the state of Tennessee, Columbia is in decline. It has the highest unemployment rate of any city of its size in the state and 20 percent of the population living below the poverty line. Not only has Columbia failed to attract new residents, with more and more families choosing to settle in neighboring Middle Tennessee cities, but the city is losing the young millennial generation, that many recognize as key to attracting local investments and maintaining a vibrant economy.

A result of the traditional development pattern common in that decade, James Campbell Boulevard is now outdated and dangerous. “The original purpose of the Boulevard no longer meets the needs of our community,” explains Norman Wright, Director of Grants and Planning for the City of Columbia, “At the time, everything was focused around the automobile and development patterns were designed with that in mind. Now, we have more pedestrian and bicycle traffic that the street simply cannot handle.” Realizing that creating a healthy, vibrant city with access to jobs was key to attracting new businesses and new residents, Columbia began to consider rethinking the design and purpose of James Campbell Boulevard.

Thanks to local investment by a Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Challenge Grant, the residents of Columbia were able to join together to create a plan on how to move forward toward those objectives. James Campbell Boulevard is changing to reach the goal of building a more livable community, focused around the corridor. “As a city in decline, we were really looking for a catalyst for new investment,” says Wright, “For us, livability was synonymous with economic development.”

In fact, the city may reach those goals much sooner than expected thanks to the HUD grant. As the first grantee to complete their regional plan, Columbia can attribute much of its early success to community involvement and momentum. “Thanks to the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, we were able to explain to the community what sustainable development really means. This grant gave us the opportunity and the resources to talk about livability, economic development, and quality of life and what that means for our City. That resonates. That was huge,” says Wright.

Last month, the James Campbell Boulevard Strategic Corridor Plan was approved by the City Council and work began on applying for another Partnership for Sustainable Communities grant to aid in implementation; this time a Department of Transportation TIGER grant. “We’re very excited about the progress we have made here in Columbia,” says Wright, “When you propose a change to the community, they need to know why. We’ve done that. Now we are working together to figure out how. Talking about solutions and then implementing them and creating something real – – that’s subtle, but it means a great deal for the future health of our community.”