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Alternative Futures
April 13, 2003

You don't have to look further than the Sunday paper for information on what Richmond's economic development options are. I commend to you two stories in today's West County Times. If you don't subscribe and don't wait too long, you can view both on the Internet.


The first, entitled "Railyard Renaissance" describes how Sacramento will use its historic but obsolete railyards as the centerpiece for an urban, mixed use project. The entire story is at http://www.bayarea.com/mld/cctimes/news/5624117.htm. This could be Richmond, instead of Sacramento, with the World War II Shipyards and the former Pullman Shops providing the theme and historical anchor. Some excerpts form the "Railyard Renaissance" story follow:


"This is a complex of incredible rarity in the United States," National Park Service historian Richard O'Connor recently told the Sacramento City Council. Noting the buildings' survival and the historic role of the Transcontinental Railroad, O'Connor compared their 19th century significance to the Civil War battlefields in Gettysburg, Pa.


On a littered, rusty landscape where laborers built trains for a railroad that opened the nation, designers of Minnesota's Mall of America and the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas now plan a flashy new swath of housing, shopping and entertainment to pump fresh urban pizzazz into a stately, quiet capital city of 418,000 people.


"What we will be building doesn't exist today in Sacramento," said Jon Jerde, owner of the Jerde Partnership and Millennia Associates, of Venice. "We're introducing a very vibrant real-life urban core for the capital."


Real estate brokers and Sacramento city officials call the development one of the largest "infill" projects -- filling in a blighted, vacant part of a central city -- in the United States.


National analysts call it a new wave of American city building that mixes entertainment, housing, transit and shopping for an intense urban sensation. As urban crime declines and suburban commutes grow more painful, they say people under 30 and baby boomers over 50 increasingly crave such environments.


"It's the beginning of a whole new trend to create whole new integrated communities instead of office buildings and retail," said Michael Beyard, a retail/urban entertainment specialist with the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C.


Jerde's specialty of reinventing down-and-out places with "entertainment retail" that attracts crowds and new housing, includes Universal CityWalk in Universal City, Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego and Canal City Hakata in Fukuoka, Japan. Most recently, the firm opened a similar, but smaller railyard project called the Gateway in Salt Lake City.


The second story, entitled "Residents gamble on casino to save town, French Lick, Ind., the hometown of basketball legend Larry Bird, isn't the hot spot it used to be in the 1920s," describes how a down and out Indiana town that once flourished as a vacation spot pins its hopes for the future, year after disappointing year, on a gambling casino that requires an act of the legislature. For the entire story, see http://www.bayarea.com/mld/cctimes/news/5624071.htm. Excerpts follow:


A casino with slot machines, blackjack and poker is seen as a way for the town to resurrect past glory and distinguish itself as more than just the hometown of basketball legend Larry Bird.


For 11 years, Orange County, Ind., has lobbied the Legislature for a casino, each session ferrying busloads of orange-shirted boosters 100 miles north to the Statehouse in Indianapolis.


For just as many years, the proposal has been defeated, but another bill has been introduced this year.

Empty sidewalks and storefronts line the streets of downtown French Lick.


The West Baden Springs Hotel, dubbed "The Eighth Wonder of the World" when it opened in 1902, needs extensive renovation. Orange County's unemployment rate is nearly 9 percent -- worst among Indiana's 92 counties.


"French Lick is dead," said 89-year-old Parke Flick, a lifelong resident who takes twice-a-day walks through town for exercise. "You don't see a soul. You've got two bars and a dime store."


I am also reminded of a story in the February 3, 2003, San Francisco Chronicle, entitled "Standing up for Vallejo," wherein Vallejo considered, but ultimately rejected, a plan to construct a 900 megawatt power plant and liquefied natural gas terminal at the former Mare Island Shipyard. See http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2003/02/03/BA98062.DTL. Critics, concerned that the industrial endeavor would adversely affect Vallejo's opportunity for a positive image change, were quoted as saying .


"Is this going to be Petaluma, or is this going to be Richmond?" said Ducharme. Critics feared the plant, with its huge storage tanks, would scare away new businesses and upper-income families who have built new homes on bluffs overlooking the island in the past decade.


Now, I'm not sure why Petaluma was chosen as the example of what a city should strive for on the positive side, but it's clear that Richmond was intended to represent the epitome of negativity. It's interesting that Richmond has become a metaphor in regional "city-speak" for an undesirable outcome.


As we examine our options, whether they be casinos, LPG tanks, or historic preservation and cultural tourism, we should at least be aware how they will affect our image. What will "Richmond" be a metaphor for in the future? Sometimes, where we invest our resources is a sign of where we want to end up. In recent actions, the City Council allocated $9,600 to maintain a bare bones historic preservation program and $100,000 for an economic study for the proposed Indian casino.