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Downtown remains competitive, vital

Downtown remains competitive, vital

Long before anybody ever thought of calling it “The District,” city plans called for keeping downtown Columbia strong.

Planning documents going back to at least 1935 talk about downtown being vital to the city’s growth. These ideas eventually led me, as public works director and city manager, to conclude that the overall priority for Columbia was to keep it growing outward in a controlled manner from a strong city center, and the strong city center is the key to that formula.
As I look back over my 46 years with the city, I realize how important it has been for property owners, businesses, our educational institutions, and city and county government to work together to keep the downtown strong. Unlike the downtowns of many other cities, downtown Columbia continues to meet the challenges of competition from other retail areas, as evident from increasing property values and robust activity both day and night.

In 1821, Columbia began with a few cabins on Flat Branch Creek and quickly grew to a whopping 130 people by 1823, 600 by 1830 and 1,000 by 1840. It was the center of county government even back then, with the deciding factor for choosing Columbia being the ready availability of potable water from a well near Flat Branch Creek. The first courthouse was constructed in 1824, and a town plat provided for a square on the site where the present courthouse is located.

Downtown holds our government buildings, our university, two colleges and many of our town’s largest churches. Located in approximately the same place that it was when commercial establishments first began to line Broadway, which was built wide enough so that wagons and carriages could park on it and turn easily, downtown still hosts one of the main concentrations of merchants in our city.

Early on, the city had to work with downtown’s many entities and interests to address important environmental and infrastructure issues. One of the first items we tackled was the refuse problem. In the early 1960s, we did not have a good solid waste collection system, and it was a financial drain on the city. Both the city and private collectors picked up refuse from restaurants and commercial businesses. Still, downtown alleys were cluttered with discarded appliances and trash, often violating sanitation and fire codes, and we had problems with rats and other rodents digging through it. Paper and cardboard boxes often were stored within buildings; the city charged businesses according to the number of minutes it took to move the materials from the business to the garbage truck, and inadequate fees were collected.

In 1962, as Public Works Department director, I requested a survey report of trash and refuse accumulation, collection and disposal and how it might be handled using bulk metal containers—Dumpsters—a decision that, when implemented, was the first use of these containers in the Midwest. The survey showed that Dumpsters could greatly improve the cleanliness and appearance of downtown Columbia. Today, compactors are being used to further clean up some alleys.

Because we lacked funding to purchase a truck and 78 Dumpsters, we leased them with an option to buy. Stan Elmore, an engineer in the Public Works Department, helped manage the new system. Some merchants were initially very upset that they needed to share containers with neighbors at a pro-rated cost, but over time, the Dumpsters were accepted.

As Public Works and Acting Planning director, I worked closely with Hare and Hare and council-appointed city committees to update our 1935 master plan. In its 1966 guideline report adopted by the City Council, the firm mentioned that downtown was likely to remain a regional shopping center with a “wide range of services, large captive market of downtown workers (and in Columbia, also including the students at the university and colleges) and its opportunities for face-to-face contact among business and professional men.” One hopes our businesswomen have similar opportunities today for such “face time” as well.

Both the 1935 and 1966 plans by consultants Hare and Hare talked about focusing on developing and maintaining essential infrastructure, such as roads and streets. The 1966 plan spoke about community image issues, including badly maintained curbs, walks and streets as well as too many poles, overhead wires and overhanging signs.

Signs overhanging the sidewalk were “unattractive and visibly distracting,” the consultants said. I recall that the League of Women Voters, working with a separate committee, pursued the removal of overhanging signs with a new sign ordinance that was adopted by the City Council and administered by the Public Works Department. Reporters continued to remind me about the requirement that all overhanging signs be removed within 10 years. Some businesses held out to the bitter end.

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