Charleston, W.Va., turns urban flight problem around
The city of Charleston, capital of West Virginia and hub for government, education, banking, health care and commerce, hugs the confluence of the Elk and Kanawha rivers. A valley town that prospered from salt, natural gas, coal and chemicals, it has a population hovering around 151,000.
The driving economic force acting on the entity, according to Mayor Danny Jones, has become tourism.
“We’re building a niche for groups, conferences and conventions as a destination,” he said. “In the past four years, when you include the rehab to the mall and hotel, we’ve seen a $50 million investment in this kind of development.
“We’re also doing the Charleston Civic Center, which will be a $100 million project. We did the minor league ballpark, which was $23 million. And we have just generally cleaned up the city and done a lot of downtown development.”
People are moving back into Charleston. For a long time, back to the 1970s, people just didn’t want to live downtown. After the expressways came through in the ‘60s, most moved to the suburbs, and the exodus saw the city’s population significantly decline for decades.
Now, said Jones, “We have apartments and condos springing up, right in the heart of downtown. It’s being built, and they are coming.”
It did not, however, come without an equally substantial investment in community infrastructure.
“We have put over $100 million into improving affordable housing. Former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, when he visited, said he had never seen anything like it in a city this size. But you know, if you don’t reach out to lower income folks, it’s not going to matter what you do in other areas.”
The overarching objective is for the whole community to look and feel good about itself, because if one part of town or another doesn’t, it drags the whole community down, he said.
The process started 13 years ago. At that time, the downtown area was blighted with poorly maintained, unattractive, rent-subsidized apartments. One of those, Spring Hill, was privately owned and going broke.
The city decided its subsidy money would be better spent if it was more directly involved with management, so officials plugged into HUD and the Virginia Housing Development Fund to get some help. The results, said Jones, have been incredible.
“These are just better places to live,” he affirmed, relating how the makeovers made the affordable housing nearly indistinguishable in general appearance from upscale housing; and how that not only makes things more attractive for visitors; but, just as importantly, helped bolster people’s confidence both in the their community and in themselves.
“I learned this over 40 years ago in the restaurant business: People draw people. The more people you have, the more you are going to have. There is no question: If you want to work on quality of life issues for local people, (then) when you make this city a better place to come visit it will overlap into other issues. It will also become a better place for the people who live here.”
With local needs for affordable and accessible housing, medical services and good public transit clearly in mind, civic leaders focused on cultivating a vibrant and vital place to live, work, have a business, visit and invest in the future. The tenacity of these well-thought-through efforts propelled Charleston to a semi-finalist slot in the $10 Million America’s Best Communities Competition.
“Council members Suzy Salisbury and Ron Blackstone advanced the idea,” Jones said. He told how the pair, working with a network of other people, talked up a vision for Charleston as the “cultural, recreational and business capital of the Appalachian Mountains.” This greater emphasis on arts and culture built on the accumulating successes of FestivALL Charleston, opening of Appalachian Power Park, free Friday evening “Live on the Levee” concerts, creation of the Schoenbaum Stage and renovation of Haddad Riverfront Park.
The America’s Best Communities competition seeks to instill new hope and to help inspire economic revitalization in small towns and cities across the country. Charleston is one of 15 communities to advance into the semifinals. It is now eligible to win major investments to implement its innovative Community Revitalization Plan, which aims to do more aesthetic and recreational development, revamping urban parks, creating a higher density housing mix and connecting downtown to area trails and bike paths.
The plan, “Imagine Charleston: Your Dream. Our Future,” outlines a single set of prioritized recommendations as a unified vision to guide decisions on land use, development and capital improvements that will ensure Charleston remains a highly desirable place to live, work, learn or visit. Its purpose is to assist city leaders in making substantive, thoughtful decisions for the next 10 to 20 years about neighborhood and transportation improvements, as well as special strategies for key areas in the city. It also strives to balance the interests and rights of individual private property owners with those of the entire community.
The plan was presented to the general public for input at open houses and feedback solicited through social media, Web pages, Facebook and Twitter. The strategy was to ask people “What if…?” questions and get them to share their dreams for the future — to tap local creativity and build a shared vision for the whole community and for each individual neighborhood. To look at existing situations and wonder out loud: “What if we were to try something new? What if we were to do things differently? What if we could learn from successes in other places and apply those lessons here?”
Concepts were then further developed, a draft plan was proposed and after public consensus was reached, the city council adopted it.
The key to Charleston’s success is exemplified by Mayor Jones and the team he leads. Do the best you can working with your council, Jones preaches. Move partisan politics out of your city council chambers, because the farther you get away from the issues that directly effect the public, the more dysfunctional things get.
“We need to be constantly asking: What’s real? What works? What’s the cause and what’s the effect? To focus every decision on that.”
Even the mayor isn’t a one-man miracle worker or fortune teller, he added.
“The man or woman who does this job does not have to be the best student in the class. It just takes good instincts, normal intelligence, being willing to work and to motivate other people to work, and to lead.” He paused, then double-emphasized: “You have to lead. Take risks. It’s called occupying your own space.”