Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Moveable Feast

In tonight's News and Tribune (October 14, 2014) the topic of changing the location of Harvest Homecoming's booths was reported. The Harvest Homecoming festival's president, Jeff Cummins, said, "the Harvest Homecoming Committee is open to suggestions about improving the festival..."

So, here goes.

The current layout for the festival's booths includes these streets and blocks: Market from State to  Third Street (3 blocks)

Pearl Street from Spring to Main (2 blocks)

Bank Street from Spring to Main (2 blocks)

One of the reasons cited by those who object to the Harvest Homecoming's occupation of the downtown streets is that it discombobulates the year round store owners and restaurateurs for the benefit of the festival during its five day run. Further, those not enamored of Harvest Homecoming say that the stakeholders in downtown businesses don't really benefit from the erection of the booths, while it is they who try to make a living downtown the other 51 weeks of the year.

I recall when the festival began in the late Sixties or early Seventies. Downtown New Albany was a much different place then. Quite a few stores were still hanging on to the hope of a business revival against the onslaught of the malling of America, and its local outbreaks found in Clarksville and Louisville. The festival itself was quite different then, too. The footprints of its modest beginnings were confined to fewer blocks. The beer garden actually coexisted with the other booths along Bank Street.

Rather than a business revival, the store owners downtown saw the dismal Seventies, and the wrenching Eighties dash those hopes in a collapse encountered across the land by countless small towns that lost stores, dining, and service businesses to the sprawlers and the big boxers. Because those lean years stretched on into the Nineties, no one seemed to question the logic of handing over the downtown to a once-a-year fling, and the festival grew without constraints. During those lean times, the festival was a welcome change from the boring tune of decline and vacancy which played endlessly on the downtown juke. It seemed to be the song we would always sing until it would become our requiem.

But then a wind of change began to stir here, in New Albany, and in other small towns around the nation. Buy local became an organizing principle for reborn small towns. People began to see that wealth of local origin is a heartier variety of wealth; it is one that can build sustainable prosperity because it is built of the community, and in the community. Some of those who have put skin in the game of downtown revival have begun to question if the model of Harvest Homecoming born in the lean times now jibes with the better days downtown.

While I have no direct stake in the downtown, I, and we all, have a stake in building a sustainable prosperity for our city. So, when one person, or one group sounds a cautionary note about the Harvest Homecoming, and when that note is given front page ink in the News and Tribune, it becomes a topic of general concern.

I first began to hear rumblings against the disruption caused by Harvest Homecoming about ten years ago. It seemed parochial at the time and, I thought, rooted in people being forced out of their usual parking places downtown. It sounded baseless and a little short sighted. More recently, Roger Baylor of the New Albanian Brewing Company, and a stakeholder in downtown New Albany's revival, has been beating the drum for a retooling of the Harvest Homecoming. Baylor has been surprisingly willing to air his opinion on the topic. This may not be widely known, but Baylor rubs some people the wrong way. And, some people will disregard what he says simply because it is he who says it. But, as the adage says, don't shoot the messenger.

Since Mr. Cummins welcomed ideas, and since the Tribune has elevated the festival topic to wider discussion,  it seems the future of the festival and the continued health of the downtown revival could be best served by making the Harvest Homecoming a moveable feast, migrating from one part of downtown to another, as conditions change and dictate. New Albany's downtown was benefitted by the stimulus of the Harvest Homecoming in the festival's early years. I believe the festival is still  a net plus for the city, but it could be a greater contributor to the city which, at no small cost to the taxpayers, mobilizes for, and welcomes its pitching of the tents each year.

If, instead of the layout shown above, the festival's booths moved to different streets, the festival could again serve a revivifying function for downtown. The layout listed above totals seven blocks. The following layout also comprises seven blocks, although these blocks are adjacent to the heart of the downtown. While the festival's 250,000 to 300,000 attendees would still come downtown for the event, they would be somewhat away from what is currently ground zero. This should bring welcome potential customers downtown while not so seriously disrupting the normal flow of commerce.

A possible layout is:

Third Street from Spring to Main (2 blocks)

Market from Bank to Third (1 block)

Bank Street from Market to the railroad tracks (2 blocks)

Main Street, which is no longer a state highway, from Bank to Third Street (2 blocks)

This aims the festival slightly to the East and South of its current venue while leaving the streets in front of the majority of downtown stores and restaurants open for business. I would expect the merchants in the newly vacated streets to open their doors to the festival-goers, although now their doors would not be blocked by booths. Hopefully, the biggest problem facing the merchants would be dealing with an overflow of customers brought downtown by Indiana's biggest street festival. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Boxing Day

As Daniel Suddeath reported in the June 20*, News and Tribune, the building at 922 Culbertson is in the sights of the demolition crew. This is a shame, and it didn't, and still doesn't, have to happen.

The worn-out phrase from some distant management guru applies in this case, it is the requirement to think outside the box.

Inside the box, we see inadequate code-enforcement leading to the deterioration of the structure, which set it on its present perilous course. Many building in New Albany are in sorry shape. Are all  these blighters the result of blind eyes in the past? If so, good, we can place blame with people who came before us, and what good does that do anyone?

Are the members of preservation groups strident in defense of the city's historic buildings and neighborhoods; do these groups, or individuals within these groups, rub bureaucrats and policy makers the wrong way? Probably, and so what? Is the Horseshoe Foundation derelict in its mission, not abiding by its bylaws which call on the Foundation to support historic preservation? A lot of people think so.

I've heard that in place of the old tavern will be several newly-designed versions of  Habitat for Humanity houses. This laudable group does good and meaningful work, and is worthy of support, however, the houses they have designed for New Albany leave much to be desired. The placement and design of the houses does nothing to help the city escape the branding of certain parts of town as underprivileged, less desirable neighborhoods, and, therefore does not break the cycle of exclusion and poverty for the residents of those neighborhoods. Inside the Culbertson Avenue box, if the Habitat solution is chosen, we seem intent on making sure that this depressed neighborhood stays depressed and looks the part.

Does New Albany have money to fund the preservation and reuse of the building at 922 Culbertson? Not if you listen to the noise within the box.

Outside the box, there's plenty of money to salvage this building and help this neighborhood, as Suddeath reported June 19*. The sewer bond restructuring will pipe over a million dollars into City coffers. The rehabilitation of the building at 922 Culbertson has been estimated at between $150,000-300,000. Since the available funds to save this building would come from this rewrite of the bonds, perhaps it is fitting that the Sewerage Department share in the benefits of its salvation. Since the City's exhaustive search for willing parties to take on the rejuvenation process of the building has produced no results, why not use some of the savings from the sewer bonds, to invest in a first class renovation of the property and move the Sewer Billing offices there?

The structure is large enough to allow for the operations of that office to be housed on the main floor, with additional space on the upper floor for private offices for sewer employees or a field office for code enforcement, a police substation, or many other public uses. Even with the sewer offices there, the large main room of the tavern would be an ideal setting for a neighborhood Assembly Room, where from time to time governmental meetings could be held, including some City Council meetings. This would be an opportunity to deliver government services to the place where people live.

If the City's use of the property has the effect I believe it would, adding stability and vitality to that neighborhood, it need not be a permanent part of the neighborhood. The City's tenancy could be ended any time and the structure could be sold to private users. But, those private users would be buying into a part of town that has been greatly improved, and more inviting of private investment.

Inside the box rests a wrecking ball. Outside the box lies an open-ended list of possibilities.

One choice requires no imagination, and returns very little to the citizens of that neighborhood, or the city at large.

The other choice requires a hopeful vision for the city and all of its neighborhoods, a commitment to work toward an environmentally sustainable future, a city of walkable, safe, prosperous and interesting neighborhoods. What's the point of walkable neighborhoods, if you have no place to walk to?

Such neighborhoods can help New Albany rebuild, and bring vitality back to the city, as young people starting new families are given what many of their contemporaries are currently seeking in the older neighborhoods of Louisville, such as Germantown and the Highlands. It is not an overnight fix. It is, rather, a long slow process, and one which is immensely helped with a focal point such as the 922 building. If we don't seize some opportunity with this building, it will be a mistake. Will it be a mistake fatal to New Albany's future? Of course not. But it will be a mistake which we didn't need to make if we just looked outside the box.The lid's open. All we need to do is step out.

*June 20, 2014--News and Tribune, Old New Albany tavern to be torn down
*June 19, 2014--News and Tribune, New Albany City Council acts to restructure sewer bonds       


Monday, June 9, 2014

Just a Couple of Crazy Kids With a Dream

Of course the trajectory of crazy the Las Vegas Teabaggers were on, which ended in yet a few more tragic gun deaths, was probably pre-ordained to end in the deaths of the zealots themselves, at their own hands.

Perhaps the now-bastardized slogan, purloined by the radical Tea Party, needs a tweak. In addition to the standard, the Miller's flag might read, "Don't Tread On Me... I'll Tread On Me."

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Attention Shoppers

In honor of the Twenty Fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, consumers across America can take an additional 25% off the price of any item bearing the Made in China label. At participating stores...today only

Monday, June 2, 2014

No Brainers

Saturday night my wife and I went to a wonderful movie, The Railway Man, and on the way home we decided to walk across the Big Four Bridge, since it was recently opened on both sides. Out of habit, we headed toward River Road in Louisville to our normal point of departure for such walks. At the Vernon Lanes I suggested that we should go instead to Jeff and ascend there, and we did.

While on the circuitous ramp up to the bridge itself, we were both amazed at how many people were taking advantage of the beautiful evening to explore this new addition to the Falls Cities. Once on the deck of the bridge I thought, turning this relic of the heydays of railroads into an amenity for our communities has been a real smash hit. Now that it is obviously successful, some may call the bridge's repurposing a no brainer.

This successful, concrete, example of a community-wide reach beyond our pre-constrained vision of the place we live, made me think of what other no-brainers, perhaps obscured by the darkness of our self-imposed limits, simply wait for a light bulb to click on to bring them into view.

Then, upon reflection, I thought, we are awash in a different kind of no-brainers as well, and it is those people that block out  the light, whether for budgetary, or cognitive-comfort reasons. Or is it simply because they are, themselves, dim bulbs?

The no-brainers, however, that most interest me here are the ones which, if brought to life, would be widely recognized as positive additions to our local scene. Of course, the list here is by no means exhaustive.

Heading up the list is, of course, the missing link to a pedestrian/bicycle loop between the Falls Cities--the K & I Bridge. If the intransigence of the Norfolk Southern bureaucracy maintains, and the railroad's no-public-use policy stays in place, then we, as a community, need to find a way to circumvent that stubbornness. Perhaps the railroad would permit use of the bridge's existing piers so a relatively lightweight structure of cantilevered design could be added to the bridge, independent of its functional aspects. Keep in mind that about $20 million of the total cost to transform the Big Four was eaten up in the approach ramps to that bridge. The K & I approaches are at ground level already, so we're ahead of that project by a huge amount.

Another no-brainer is a comprehensive reclamation of Falling Run Creek as a meandering park throughout much of our city. The current state of the creek in many places is shameful. And yet, it is a diamond in the rough which could be a walking/biking/jogging path through the city. Since Falling Run feeds into the Ohio, a reasonable case could be made that it should be part of the Ohio River Greenway.

New Albany is perilously close to losing its freight rail capability. Freight that is not shipped by rail will, by default, be shipped by truck, and those trucks will travel on city streets. A goal of economic development staff should be to provide incentives to make rail freight more feasible for local manufacturers. Globe Mechanical, QRS Recycling and the City's own waste water treatment plant could possibly become customers on the rail line running practically through their properties. Any additional freight shipments by rail help to strengthen that vital element of our infrastructure while keeping heavy trucks off city streets.

A local look at light rail, unfortunately, brings up one of the other kinds of no-brainers. Several years ago, Louisville appeared poised to head toward a light rail system. With little explanation, Mayor Jerry Abramson nixed the tentative move toward that sensible mode of transportation. It was a loss for Louisville for sure, but it was also a setback for the region, its environment, and its air quality. Had a viable light rail system been in place, would we still be building toll roads today?

Today's edition of the Moyers and Company show featured Joseph Stiglitz. The economist discussed the inequality of today's tax system which unfairly burdens the middle class, while rewarding large corporations with the lowest taxes in modern US history. Those large corporations often make money outside the US, and to avoid taxes if returning the money to the US, they simply leave it in foreign banks and foreign countries. It does nothing to improve the quality of life for our own citizens. These  expatriate corporations drive down the wage structure of this nation and rob the country of the necessary tax money to invest in infrastructure, education, health care, technological innovation and many of the other things we've ransomed to right wing, anti-tax, ideologues. How's this tie into no-brainer's?

Just this, if we stand any chance of holding onto democracy in this country it will be because we have bought into and nurtured the trend of buying local. Just as Tip O'Neill said, "all politics is local", in light of extra-national corporations driving down wages, the quality of life, and substituting jobbettes for good jobs, union jobs, in this country, we need to recognize that all prosperity is local. Every policy of our local government needs to favor locally owned businesses, whether in purchasing on the basis of local ownership over price, or in clearing hurdles for new local businesses starting up. If a policy or rule is found to favor national companies over local companies, that rule must go.

If we focus on building a strong local economy, and do things that make our city innovative, sustainable, safe, and inviting, we'll find we have a better community to call home. Some might call that a no brainer.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

A Golden Oldie Rings True Today

The Lion of the Senate speaking then, to today's Teapubligarchs?