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From the Roundtable: Return to public civility could aid discourse, development

From the Roundtable: Return to public civility could aid discourse, development

Al Germond

I never met Hirst Mendenhall, but I understand he was an impressive person, based on what he accomplished here. Mendenhall, who died Jan. 27, set foot in Columbia to study journalism and then went off to help win World War II, the war to end all wars”a member of the vanishing “greatest generation.” Mendenhall came back to Columbia and eventually joined the ranks of eminent citizens who helped develop the city through various projects.For me, Mendenhall’s passing is a time to pause and wonder what obstacles he encountered in developing, say, the Quarry Heights neighborhood, which remains to this day one of the true gems of the Old Southwest subdivisions.

Having seen its population more than quadruple in 60 years, Mendenhall, if you’d sat down to visit with him, probably would have agreed that Columbia’s future is being held back in a number of ways.

One hindrance is certainly the increased and occasional overarching involvement of a coterie of local boards, councils, commissions, departments and functionaries. Aside from what is mandated, it seems there’s always room for one more assemblage of volunteers with enough free time on their hands to meet periodically. Membership becomes their “hobby,” which is ramped up to the level of a periodic forum that gives members their opportunity to squawk while giving a hard time to each supplicant who appears before them.

Former City Councilman Brian Ash recently noted the breakdown of public civility, as opposing groups spar and go to “war,” so to speak, over a particular project or proposal. Compromise seems to be a tough order, while rigid doctrines get peoples’ backs up on matters that really end up being rather inconsequential. The flames are periodically fanned by the probing “sometimes attacking”nature of various local media, including print, television, Internet blogs and talk radio.

There certainly is a generous supply of media outlets, and this probably leads to the second hindrance: the comparatively limited participation in local civic affairs by members of the business, financial and development communities. Who in this group of doers wants to see their privacy eroded while daily dealing with the Fourth Estate and the sniping along the way by participants in various electronic media outlets?

The developers and investors in this community need to be honored and respected, as I have argued in previous columns, but that doesn’t mean they are always saints. The ability to compromise is essential. Still, they should be celebrated because they are employers of men and women who develop business plans, borrow the money they are responsible for paying back and then persevere to deal with an increasing number of regulatory obstacles tossed in their way.

With compromise in mind, one can only imagine what goes on in a developer’s mind when a project as ambitious as the contentious Crosscreek at the intersection of Highway 63 and Stadium Boulevard comes up for public consideration. An example is the five hours of public debate that engaged the City Council last Monday. The only decision was to table the matter until the March 3 meeting and whoknows- how-many more sessions after that.

How many more of these contentious gatherings in which the council burns the midnight oil will it take before enough citizen rage sets in and the council finally installs stricter timelimiting constraints?

Let the council take a more authoritarian approach by setting absolute time limits. Hang a traffic light in the council chambers: green means “talk,” yellow means “it’s time to wrap things up” and red means “stop talking!” A stopwatch-equipped referee controls the light according to a pre-determined timing schedule.

Then there’s another hindrance. Columbia has no superstar promoter-developer like John Q. Hammons. I look admiringly at Springfield. Some of us like to tut-tut about this growing southwest Missouri metropolis because life there somehow seems beneath us in one way or another. In fact, though, we’re jealous because Springfield has richly benefited from John Q’s contributions over the years. Could it be that Springfield’s various agencies, councils, commissions and factotums decided to welcome this bearer of development largess far more than we could ever imagine doing here?

It wouldn’t take much research to find out how Springfield’s city government agencies deal with development situations like the Crosscreek project. I’d bet if Columbia had a person like John Q. Hammons around, we’d be way ahead of where we are now and maybe wouldn’t be so anxious about the trend toward weakening sales tax revenues.

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