Friday, February 19, 2010

Harrisonburg downtown green space . . .

If you follow WMRA on Facebook (our page is now 48-hours old ), you know I spent most of yesterday at the Harrisonburg Summit on Strengthening Local Business and Economy.

Along with about 200 other people including real estate developers, Harrisonburg Planning Commission members, yoga teachers, local foodies, ITers, college and university professors and staff, bankers. In my opinion, it was just the kind of diverse group that can generate a truly productive conversation on economic development.

The summit ran from 10 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon. At 2:15, I parked myself in the basement of Clementine Cafe (one of many downtown venues helping to, as Mayor Kai Degner put it, "turn conference-center-less downtown Harrisonburg into a conference center, itself"). I was there to attend a break-out session convened by Frazier Quarry's (and longtime WMRA underwriter) Bibb Frazier on why it's important to maintain green space downtown.

First of all, the consensus of the 25 people gathered was that Downtown Harrisonburg will undergo further serious development in the fairly near future, mainly accomplished through public/private partnerships.

This development will happen because, as the economy continues to rebound,  the city's excellent credit rating will attract big-money investment from out of town. These investors will both remodel  Harrisonburg's existing industrial and commercial buildings and build new ones. And their only purpose in this remodeling and building will be to make a buck. Which, as Bibb Frazier put it, is what they're supposed to do. They don't, after all, have to live with results of their development.

We do, however; and everyone at the session (realtors, landscapers, city staff members, businessmen, involved citizens) seemed to agree that it was extremely important to open up more outdoor space (such as downtown's Denton pocket park pictured right) as all this downtown development takes place. So, the session's challenge became how to ensure that for-profit developers honor Harrisonburg citizens' wish for more open-air gathering spaces downtown.

Now here's where my little reporterly eyes really opened wide. Allan Finks, who's on the city Planning Commission, began talking  about how the city's Comprehensive Plan, which is currently undergoing revision, makes precious little mention of downtown green space. The time for citizens to exert serious influence on downtown green space development, Finks suggested, would be during the  revision's public comment period that will take place this spring. Sadly, he said, very few people show up at these meetings, perhaps because very few people realize they are happening.

At this point, I practically sat up and barked. I know first hand from my Charlottesville years in the seventies and eighties that there's very little that influences a community's quality of life more than its Comprehensive Plan.  Downtown Harrisonburg looks as though its going to grow quickly in the fairly near future. That means the city's next Comprehensive Plan is the one that's going to guide this growth.

No one at the session in Clementine Cafe seemed to know how to get the word out about these public comment meetings without spending money that really isn't there.

I went straight back to the station and asked Tom DuVal if WMRA could make it a mission to help get the word out about the public comment  meetings -- once they are scheduled. He said sure.

Whoo-hoo! I thought. Go WMRA!

This station is, after all,  a community of community members, a bunch of whom live in Harrisonburg. It's certainly not WMRA's mission to tell people what to say at these meetings, but it is our mission to let people know they are happening.

So anyway, stay tuned and get ready to mark your calendar. And those of you who live in the 'Burg, take a stroll downtown and think hard about its future.

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