Salt Lake City, Denver and Newport News, Va., show that for downtowns to redevelop, city leaders need vision and political courage to make the tough decisions required for residents' dreams to become a reality.
That conclusion was drawn by officials from the three cities - chosen to represent "cities on the move" - during a panel discussion Friday at the National Conference of Community and Economic Opportunities in the '90s at the Doubletree Hotel.The conference was sponsored by the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment officials.
Salt Lake City Planning Commission Chairman Tom Ellison told how since the arrival of the Mormon pioneers, the city has always tried to carefully plan its look and future - which has made the city attractive. That attracts people, and people attract economic development, he said.
When the time came to redevelop aging areas, leaders still followed the example of Brigham Young and, like him, planned what the city should become and make tough decisions to achieve it.
Ellison said evidence that still continues was the visit last week by the Regional Urban Design Assistance Team - which is helping to design the future look of the city - and announcement of a possible new 25,000-seat arena that should help draw people downtown for sports and cultural events.
Newport News Mayor Jessie Rattley said her downtown area "wasn't dead, but was in the intensive care unit" with residents fleeing to suburbs, no one shopping downtown and many buildings boarded up.
City officials combated that by using federal funds to remove blighted areas, spending $20 million in city funds to help bring an interstate freeway downtown and spending millions more to donate land and dormitories to attract a new nuclear research facility.
All that made people feel good about the city. "We still have serious problems, but we're out of the intensive care unit and on the way to a regular ward. We have new hope. That's what vision will do," she said.
Billie Brimhall, deputy director of Denver planning and community development, said when the energy boom went bust in the early 1980s, her city reeled from the effects but is taking steps that should restore it to good financial health by the early 1990s.
She said when oil prices fell, many new downtown skyscrapers suddenly had vacancy rates of 30 percent, unemployment rose dramatically, people spent less money and many businesses failed. All that in turn greatly reduced sales taxes, which were the main source of city revenue.
Some of the options pursued to bring other businesses to Denver to overcome the bust included building a major new convention center and a new giant airport. Denver hopes that, like in Atlanta, such an airport will attract new international businesses. It hopes the convention center will increase tourism.
But those facilities and expected benefits will not come until the early 1990s. Until then, she said, Denver is tightening its belt by not giving employees raises and forcing them to take days off without pay.
She said the economy of Denver appears to be improving slowly because of such steps. "Boom means bust, and slow increase may mean stability. So we're happy with it."