He says, ‘Build it and they will come’
By Catherine Warmerdam
Civic amenities—our parks, cultural attractions, science and art institutions, libraries, sports and recreation facilities, entertainment venues and other community assets—define our quality of life and are essential to a robust local economy. The question being asked by civic and business leaders across the region is this: How can we achieve economic prosperity if we don’t invest in the civic amenities our region deserves? And how can we build the community and financial support to maintain existing amenities and build new civic assets?
In this interview, Tim Youmans, senior principal at the firm Economic & Planning Systems, talks about the strategic plan for civic amenities developed by the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and what that strategy might mean for economic development in the Sacramento region.
How would you rate Sacramento in terms of its current civic amenities? Why do some see the need for improvement?
Many people in the region are really satisfied with what we have already, and others like what we’ve got but feel we could improve those by adding new amenities and features. It’s also a big push to strengthen the region’s economy—to add improvements to our quality of life here that would bring in employers and employees.
Can you explain how civic amenities are linked to economic prosperity and job creation?
The civic amenities create the place where people want to be. By having entertainment and recreation and educational opportunities, people want to be there to enjoy those. Right now, the trends are that people, particularly younger people, pick where they want to live first and then the jobs follow. So one of the efforts is to make Sacramento a better place in order to keep our graduates and others from leaving and attract others to come.
And of course someone has to build these amenities and provide all the supporting business that goes with them—the restaurants, the tourism, all of that.
We’re really looking at it in terms of the future: If many of these amenities were actually built, then what would go along with it? If you look at our map of all those things around the downtown core, there are six or seven new major projects proposed, like the Powerhouse Science Center or the Rail Technology Museum or the Indian Heritage Center. If you look at all those projects going in, it starts answering questions about where the bridge across the river should be, where parking facilities should be, where the streetcar should go, where hotels should go. So it starts helping with long-term planning.
There’s a great wish list of projects in the civic amenities report. What projects do you think hold the most promise for actually being built in the coming decade?
The Powerhouse Science Center is very close to being built, as is the new B St. Theatre. The Community Center Theater has the funding right now if they want to go through with a renovation project. The projects in the railyard are a little more difficult. There has to be a lot of activity in the railyards to make it ready for development, and there’s a lot of cleanup work in the existing buildings. But that’s one area that has the strongest potential for growth in the region and to really be a game changer in terms of where people want to congregate.
As a city, we haven’t been able to even keep the doors open to some of our most basic civic amenities, like community centers and swimming pools. Where do existing amenities fit into the chamber’s strategic plan?
They are all elements of the plan. In the report, we only had room to highlight the larger projects, but the strategies encompass all those things. Then it’s a matter of finding out what people will support.
Do you mean through taxpayer dollars or private dollars or both?
All of the above. One thing we’re going to look at is seeing what the community might be willing to pay for to invest in these things. We may find that they won’t do it, and then we have to go to more traditional approaches, which means capital campaigns and grants and things like that. Our approach is a little different: We’re not going to say we want to build this, will you vote yes on it? We want to go out and ask: What would you support? And then put together a package that people will support.
There has been talk in the community for years now about projects like building an entertainment and sports arena and redeveloping Capitol Mall, and yet little movement. Why haven’t we been able to make it happen up to now?
The last five years, it’s been the economy. There’s been no money to do anything. Some of it is just getting strong enough leadership to push some of these things forward. But also, communities only have so much capacity at any given time to fund things like this. The Crocker [expansion], for example, was a $100 million project, and that absorbed a lot of the available contributions.
As you describe it, it seems to be a bit of a chicken-and-egg conundrum. On the one hand, building these amenities is meant to attract much-needed business to the region and stimulate the economy, and yet getting them built requires attracting more businesses in the region that can contribute philanthropic dollars.
Well, the economy comes and goes over time. What you have to be is positioned to take advantage of opportunities when they come up. Part of the plan is to start helping people visualize what our opportunities are as opposed to just looking at one project at a time.
The civic amenities plan embodies a very ambitious vision for the region. What do you say to those naysayers who don’t believe that great projects can get built in Sacramento?
Well, there are people who are naysayers and there are people who look for opportunities. I tend to be in the opportunity group. One thing we’re going to do in the next few months is some analysis of what a lot of other regions have done to promote their economic development and their civic amenities. Part of the answer is if you only look at this area, you might say that we can’t do it. But when you start looking at what similar size communities have done because they had leadership that said let’s go do this, it shows that it’s possible. A lot of it is about building trust and taking small steps and building upon those.
As you think about the possible expansion of civic amenities in the region, what are you hopeful about?
The hopefulness comes from working together to achieve things. That builds public spirit. Dallas is a great example. Thirty years ago, there was not much there. But they made a plan and then, project by project, they got it done. Part of this strategic plan is to build that larger vision.
Would you say that leadership is as much a challenge as funding?
Definitely. And getting the region to work together and to recognize that things in downtown Sacramento are important for the region. Of course, amenities and activities in other cities are important as well. So trying to build that regional cooperation is key.
For more information about Sacramento Metro Chamber’s strategic plan for civic amenities, go to metrochamber.org.