What I Learned from Writing About a ‘Great Project’

Otis White, President, Civic Strategies

April 3, 2012

Otis White
Otis White

In 1975 I was a newspaper reporter in Columbus, working on a series of articles about the downtown. I visited downtowns elsewhere in Georgia and Alabama and talked with business leaders, elected officials, downtown experts and academics. I’m sorry to say that articles were depressing. Not only did Columbus have the most deteriorated downtown in the two states, I wrote, but it had the least political or popular support for doing anything about it.

You can imagine, then, my surprise in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Columbus’ downtown turned around – so dramatically that, today, it has one of the strongest downtowns around. And here’s an even greater surprise: The turnaround began with a remarkable project called the RiverCenter, a block-long performing arts center that doubles as the music school for Columbus State University. The story of the RiverCenter is so good – how Columbus leaders conceived of the project, united behind it, raised a record amount for its construction and overcame numerous obstacles – that I’ve written a brief book about it called “The Great Project: How a Single Civic Project Changed a City.” It’s a multimedia e-book (containing video, audio clips and photographs) that will be available through the Apple iBookstore in late March for reading on an iPad.

I’m not going to give away the story here. Let’s just say it is intricate and inspiring and has many lessons for leaders looking for transformative projects in their own cities. Let me focus, instead, on two of the lessons I found in my research.

One lesson was about the cooperation that went into the RiverCenter project, an effort that brought together local elected officials, business leaders, philanthropists, civic leaders, the state legislative delegation, the university, the arts community and many others. We talk all the time in cities about collaboration, and this was one of the best examples I’ve ever seen.

But the level of cooperation wasn’t the lesson. The lesson was how the habit of collaboration had been formed years before the RiverCenter project. In the late 1970s, Columbus’ leaders began practicing what I call an “all-in” approach to civic projects. Looked at in one way, it was about public-private partnerships. But it was much bigger than that. It was about every sector doing its part on behalf of big projects – government, nonprofits, business, foundations – and taking responsibility for their success.

It began with several projects downtown – the city built a convention center, the business community built a hotel across the street. By the 1990s, the collaborations had grown much more extensive and sophisticated. The city built storm sewers along the river, the community raised money to create a river walk atop it. The city built softball fields for the 1996 Summer Olympics (Columbus hosted the softball competitions), Fort Benning offered housing for the athletes, the business community raised money for managing the games and a massive volunteer effort was launched to handle the crowds.

By the time of Columbus’ great project, then, leaders had already mastered a new way of doing projects, and this “all-in” approach was the key to making the RiverCenter a success.

The other lesson was about the importance of answering the question, “why.” In those 1975 newspaper articles, I had asked many people why modern cities needed downtowns. Why would someone drive past a suburban shopping center to shop downtown, or past an office park to work there? What, in other words, made downtowns unique and valuable? No one had a convincing answer back then. But with the RiverCenter and other parts of Columbus State University’s campus relocating there, downtown Columbus found its answer in the 2000s: It was the city’s creative center.

It is creative in the traditional sense – as the place where residents go for musical and theater performances and for art galleries, and where college students study music, theater and visual arts. But it’s also increasingly a place for creative businesses. If you were to start an ad agency or graphic design firm in Columbus, you‘d want to be on Broadway because that’s where your future employees are (the communications and art students of Columbus State) but also because downtowns are naturally conducive to new experiences and new ideas, which are the raw materials of creativity.

Being the creative center may not work for all downtowns. Some downtowns may function better as tourism centers, financial districts or high-end shopping areas. But all downtowns must answer the “why” question. Columbus answered that question and more: It has mastered a new way of doing big projects that should benefit the city for years to come.

Otis White is president of Civic Strategies, Inc., an Atlanta-based firm that manages strategic planning projects for cities and civic organizations. His company’s website is civic-strategies.com.