by Quint Studer, author of “Building A Vibrant Community: How Citizen-Powered Change Is Reshaping America“
Every community wants to be a great place to live and work. Yet even with the economic resurgence America is feeling, many towns and cities have a long way to go. They’re grappling with unemployment. Neighborhoods are deteriorating. People are moving away. And despite their best intentions, they just can’t figure out how to create positive, sustainable growth.
One problem may be that their focus is too narrow: They get too focused on one area and put all their energy in that direction. When the approach is siloed, they don’t typically get the momentum and the economic results required for creating vibrancy.
Vibrant communities happen when many different forces intersect in the right way. Leaders from many sectors of the community have to collaborate before they can take the steps that allow sustainable growth to take off. It can’t just be the planning commission or the local government, but it must include business and education leaders who understand how to manage change and civic engagement, as well as many other segments of the community.
More than a decade ago, Pensacola was struggling in the wake of many years of economic decline. Today, much has changed. Downtown is thriving (and winning awards). New businesses are popping up everywhere. More downtown construction is taking place than at any time in modern history.
Best of all, property values are soaring: In the past five years, the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) went from an assessed property value of $675 million to $850 million, which equates to 25.9 percent growth. Finally, there are projects worth $100 million being built right now that don’t even count toward this total.
Vibrant communities don’t just happen. They’re built — in a smart and organic way. It really requires a sense of collaboration across a lot of different disciplines. Here are some of the most important elements that must come together:
1. Psychological Shift.
People have been indoctrinated to believe that government is the answer for certain things and community building is one of them. Until they change this belief, they’ll be stuck. That’s why the first order of business for leaders is changing the conversation. The goal is to help citizens understand, This is our community. We, the people, are responsible for its well-being. This mindset shift is the first and most important step. Every action will flow from the sense of ownership it creates.
2. Basic Understanding of Change Management. Understanding change is vital.
You need this understanding for framing issues the right way and for gaining the resilience it takes to endure the long process of getting things done. For example, throwing facts and data at citizens — “Unemployment rates are high, and if we don’t revitalize downtown, we can’t attract business investment” — isn’t enough. People make decisions with their heart, not their head. A community must find the burning platform that compels citizens to act. In Pensacola it was, How can we keep our children and grandchildren from leaving home?Once leaders framed issues this way, they finally got enough people behind the needed changes to achieve critical mass.
3. Good Measurement System.
Create a dashboard showing critical, objective metrics, update it regularly, and keep it in front of citizens. It will help them see how healthy their community is, identify needed improvements, and gauge progress. Think of how the dashboard of a car shows gas, oil, engine performance, temperature, etc. It’s a way to constantly be asking, How is our community doing on areas that are important to us? Wages? Crime? Education? High school dropout rate?
4. Smart Planning.
A community must be able to see the 10,000-foot view. For example, should you invest in a river walk, bike path, or some other type of development? Where should buildings go for maximum impact? How do you revitalize downtown? Which intersection should be the focal point? What types of businesses should you attract? What are your policies around incentives? It pays to seek the advice of experts. Pensacola brought in Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup, and Ray Gindroz, of Urban Design Associates, to help answer some of these questions.
5. Focus on Economics.
Judge all community projects through this lens: If it doesn’t lead to economic growth, don’t do it. Growth is almost always driven by private investment. It’s the key to job creation and a strong, sustainable tax base. That doesn’t mean individual investors will see market returns immediately. Their real reward is the vibrant community that develops over time — and of course the opportunities that will arise down the road.
6. Galvanized Business Community.
Being “business friendly” doesn’t just mean making it easy for people to start companies. It also means keeping them growing. A fully engaged business community is the key. Pensacola’s Studer Community Institute (SCI) promotes mentorship of new and small businesses. Currently, 155 businesses participate in “roundtables” and monthly training and development sessions. Others attend Entrecon, the city’s annual business conference. Once you galvanize business owners, they’ll be your catalysts for change and your sustainers.
7. Clearly Defined Role for Government.
It’s important that private investors and citizens partner with government the right way. Elected officials are wonderful partners. They can keep the community clean and safe, be consistent and fair with guidelines and zoning rules, and enforce codes. However, they can’t drive growth. They probably don’t have the budget, nor are elected officials likely to be around to see long-term projects through. Private investment must lead the way.
8. Civic Engagement.
Engaged and activated citizens are a powerful force for change. SCI created the Pensacola Center for Civic Engagement to teach them how government works and how to advocate for change. It also joined forces with the Pensacola News Journal to create a speaker’s series called CivicCon — short for “Civic Conversation” — featuring the nation’s leading thinkers and experts on community building. Each event attracts thousands of attendees and viewers.
9. A Vibrant Downtown.
This is necessary for attracting new businesses and talent and for keeping your people home. And programming — creating events that bring people downtown — is the first step to creating a vibrant downtown. Many communities do this with farmers markets, festivals, outdoor concerts, and so forth. Pensacola built a multi-use stadium, which is also the home of the Double-A baseball team the Blue Wahoos, which draws more than 300,000 fans per year to the city. (Sports teams are a great way to create common ground between citizens and really bring a community together.)
10. Focus on Education.
A good education system creates a strong talent base and appeals to investors. Do everything you can to improve yours, not just now, but in the future. Pensacola needs to bring up high school graduation rates. To impact them long term, the city decided to tackle kindergarten readiness and — to intervene even sooner — early brain development. It started a pilot program with local hospitals to work with new mothers to ensure their babies are hearing enough words. Now Pensacola is making a name for itself as America’s first Early Learning City.
11. Relentless Communication.
Communicate often and with everyone; no one should be left out. The more stakeholders and residents understand the process and what the goal is, the more successful your efforts will be. Remember, it’s impossible to go overboard on transparency. Sharing information openly and sincerely inviting feedback builds trust and, ultimately, buy-in.
I hope others will use Pensacola’s journey toward vibrancy — the wins and losses documented in his book—as a blueprint for their own transformation.
Creating a vibrant community is not easy but it is doable. Once you learn the fundamentals, it’s just a matter of staying on the path. Never declare victory and never give up. Building vibrant communities is about creating a better life for citizens. We have a human responsibility to make the effort.
Quint Studer is author of “Building A Vibrant Community: How Citizen-Powered Change Is Reshaping America” and founder of Pensacola’s Studer Community Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on improving the community’s quality of life and moving Escambia and Santa Rosa counties forward. He is a businessman, a visionary, an entrepreneur, and a mentor to many. He currently serves as the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the University of West Florida.