Monday, March 26, 2018

Out Of The Ashes Comes An Opportunity

http://www.citylab.com; March 20, 2018


Hello Everyone:

Welcome to an abbreviated week on The Blog.  Human Typist has an appointment on Wednesday so The Blogger Candidate Forum will appear on Tuesday, instead of its regularly scheduled Wednesday appearance.

Bravo to Emma Gonzales, David Hogg, Sam Ziff, Cameron Kasky, and the student organizers of the #MarchForOurLives the past Saturday, March 24. You are strong and brave.  You have an ally at historicpca.blogspot.com.  Blogger understands that there are those of you who disagree with the goals of The March.  That is okay, you are entitled to respectfully state your opinion.  Instead of engaging these articulate students in meaningful coversation, you demean them.  You created scurrilous memes, name calling, dismissing it as a product of "liberal Hollywood billionaires," puppets of the Democratic National Committee, and so forth.  Keep this in mind, some of them are old enough, or will be, to vote in November.  They will remember what side of the gun control issue you are on, as will their allies.  Blogger would like to remind you to follow these courageous young people and register to vote.   On to today's subject.

Natural and man-made disasters are devasting for communities but once they pass, something beautiful can grow out of the destruction.  This is what happened in Clarkesville, Georgia.  It is located in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains, about 85 miles north of Atlanta.  In March 2014, fire tore through the city's downtown square (nowhabersham.com; Apri. 6 2017; Mar. 26, 2018), destroying a quarter of the square.    Clarkesville city manager  Barbara Kesler spoke with Adina  Solomon in Ms. Solomon's CityLab article "In a Historic Downtown, Disaster Becomes a Chance to Build Something Better," that one of the best days of her life came three years after the fire.  Ms. Kesler recalled,

The day that we did the ribbon-cutting and opening the spaces, it was overwhelmingly emotional and very positive for the community,.... It was something we had worked so hard for.

It was a ribbon-cutting that nearly did not take place.

Clarkesville's economic development director Mary Beth Horton remembered,

This is like the worst nightmare for someone who's in downtown development.  You come home for work one day and everything's fine.  You wake up the next morning and half your downtown is gone and they you've got to somehow figure out how it's all going to come together.

This is a familiar lament for many cities, that have been affect by hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, and other disasters.  Ms. Solomon cites the example of Bothell, Washington, near Seattle.  She writes, "A fire in the historic downtown of Bothell, Washington,...., destroyed at least 15 businesses [komonews.com; date accessed Mar. 26, 2018] in July 2016."  Ellicott City, Maryland experienced a catastrophic  flood that wrecked (inquisitr.com; July 31, 2016; date accessed Mar. 26, 2018) most of the historic downtown, collapsing portions of Main Street.  In February, a block in downtown Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, home to a number of businesses, went up in flames (wearegreenbay.com; July 1, 2014; date accessed Mar. 26. 2018).

Adina Solomon points out, "But with the right steps, cities can rebuild after disaster.  To understand how, just start with Clarkesville."

Following the Clarkesville fire, "about 30 employees from the businesses that burned down had nowhere to work."  Ms. Kesler said, "the Georgia Department of Labor drove a bus to town two days after the fire, and for several days, the bus was open to help place people at other businesses."  Within a week, nearly all of the former employees had new jobs.

The next step in the recovery process was fixing the downtown.  The businesses owners of the damaged buildings could not afford rebuilding process.  Further, six months after the fire, no one stepped forward to take on the task.  Ms. Solomon reports, "...Clarkesville bought four properties for $400,000, plus one property it received through donation."  Ms. Horton said "this was necessary to salvage downtown."

Mary Beth Horton continues,

Of course, you're always met with, 'Oh well, this is government taking over property, and all this kind of stuff, and yes, it is,.... But at the same time, we have an allegiance to our town and we can't let half of our town just sit there burnt down without stepping in and doing something, so we just had to get very proactive very quickly.

Clarkesville Mayor Barrie Aycock added,

That was the only way that it could be built in a way that would be an asset to the town.

The rebuilding effort was more than just repairing and replacing the damaged structures.  "Clarkesville decided to restore the 120-year-old buildings, but also to pair the work with an expansive master plan for the downtown area."  The city turned to the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government for guidance.

In order to know which projects to focus its efforts, civic officials asked for input from residents, business owners, and visitors.  Ms. Horton organized focus groups and mailed out surveys, with over half of Clarkesville's 1,733 residency responded.  She credits much of the success of the restoration to public involvement.

Adina Solomon writes, "The consensus was to preserve the historic building, and ground broke on the square in April 2016.  In a row of three building on the square, middle one had burned down, and when Clarkesville added a firewall to make the remaining buildings structurally sound, there wasn't enough space for a third building.  So they made it into an open-air-plaza that connects square to nearby Washington Street."

The rebuilding project, including the purchase of the buildings, cost $3 million.  "Without grants--which funded 40 percent [news.uga.edu; Dec. 11, 2017; date accessed Mar. 26, 2018] of that--and the city's planning efforts, Clarkesville's rebuild wouldn't have happened."

The ribbon-cutting Barbara Kesler had been waiting for, finally came a year later.  She told Ms. Solomon,

The city made the commitment not to let downtown die,... Because it would've died if we would've left it there.

Clarkesville resident Deb Kilgore now makes her home in an apartment built over a previously damaged buildings, a project suggested by public feedback.  It is a single two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit over a street-level retail business in one of the rebuilt structures.  Ms. Kilgore told Ms. Solomon, The community came together to support the city's endeavors.

The rebuilding process inspired smaller projects: "removing outdated parking signs; improving streetscapes with sidewalks, lighting, and planters; and painting a scenic view of Clarkesville on a plain-looking building, enhancing the entrance to downtown."

The restoration of Clarkesville's downtown offers other cities, facing similar situations, a few good lessons.

First, public involvement is crucial.  Not only were the adult residents part of the process, Clarkesville also established a Main Street committee composed of high school students.

Danny Bivens, a senior public service associate at the Vinson Institute who worked with Clarkesville, told CityLab,

When these buildings were built back, people could look at it and shake their in approval because it was their ideas,.... If you talk to people, they know what the issues are in the community.  They have the solutions.

Another lesson comes from "Lean Urbanism--accomplishing quicker, less expensive projects while also working on the projects while also working on the projects that take considerable time and money."

Mr. Bivens continued,

If you're not in local government and you go and you give your input, you talk about changes that you want to see, and then you don't hear anything back for seven years, that can be disconcerting.... It's really important for us to have some short-term success that people can see, that their energy and their input is being used.

Ms. Kesler suggests "not to rush projects, but to make clear commitments on time and budget."

Mary Beth Horton said, "a rebuild requires constant communication with the public."  Clarkesville made public how long each project would take as they happened and posted renderings on how they would look when completed.  The steady stream of communications reassured residents like Ms. Kilgore.  She said,

 It was important for people to know that the city was serous about rebuilding and being able to see what was going on.

The cliche "chaos and opportunity are two sides of the same coin" applies in post-disaster situations.  Rebuilding after a category five hurricane, for example, can lead to action.  After the fire in Bothell, the city was able to secure long-sought funds to redevelop its Main Street.  In addition to rebuilding its downtown after the fire, Clarkesville created community events to bring more people downtown.

Mary Beth Horton said,

The fire was such a devastation to us, but there was such a silver lining in it, because had it not been for that, we probably would not have done all the different things that we've done for the entire downtown as a whole,.... All that sort of happened on the tail end of this fire, because we realized we just had the opportunity to do all of this, and we jumped on it.