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franklin county times

On building a better Meridian

By By Buddy Bynum / editor
June 13, 2004
I've always had great respect for the work of the Urban Land Institute and its presentation about the future potential of Meridian's downtown on Friday did not disappoint.
After only a few days in the city, the ULI advisory panel could not unwrap all of the financial, cultural and political complexities inherent in revitalizing downtown, but its members did a good job outlining what they called the "challenges and opportunities." A much more detailed report will follow in a few months.
Laurin McCracken, a marketing specialist with a Memphis architectural firm and Meridian native who led the ULI panel, said the report was a capsule of "visions, dreams and frustrations" that must be dealt with if Meridian is to achieve its full potential. He prefaced the report with the observation that Meridian is in an enviable position since a "great platform for the fabric of development" is in place.
There are good things to report, he and other members of the panel said. The Riley Center for Education and the Performing Arts, Grand Opera House, downtown parking garage, Union Station, Front Street, Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center and Temple Theatre were singled out for praise.
Add to that the potential of the Threefoot Building to house a limited service, high quality hotel to meet anticipated demand two to three years after the Riley Center opens, and the old Kress and Newberry's buildings for educational and arts or cultural uses, and other historic buildings.
Gateway center
Some of the panel's recommendations are simply common sense. For example, with 22nd Avenue as the main gateway to the city off Interstate 20/59, the old Village Fair Mall property needs to be redeveloped. It's in private ownership, so redevelopment is easier said than done, but at least the thought is there that it could attract a Home Depot, Target or upscale electronics store like Circuit City.
Getting rid of all the one-way streets in Meridian is a great idea that can be implemented immediately at very little cost. Those confusing one-way here, two-way there streets and five-point intersections are continuing sources of irritation. Two-way streets facilitate traffic flow.
Judging from what the ULI panel said about interviews conducted with 90 businesspeople in downtown, finding new ways to streamline dealings with the city bureaucracy is a priority, too.
ULI is big on pedestrian connections, aesthetically pleasing streetscapes and architecture, and cultural tourism.
A recommendation to relocate the Jimmy Rodgers Museum from Highland Park to southwestern Front Street was a little surprising, since that part of town is part of the historic African-American district and envisioned for redevelopment as an African-American cultural center. Some folks have believed the Jimmy Rodgers Museum might be better situated as part of a rail museum on the other end of Front Street, by Union Station.
New museums
To attract younger, culturally hip residents and visitors, ULI raised the possibility of six new museums touting Jewish, African-American and other cultural heritages, and Meridian's historic connections with railroads and the industrial age, such as the old Soul factory. ULI recommended that the museums and arts activities all be under the single umbrella of the Meridian Arts Council. That way, a single entity could coordinate all art shows, concerts and other events of a cultural and entertainment nature.
Scattered among themed city districts could be walking and biking trails, coffee shops, sidewalk cafes, boutique and specialty shops, more downtown housing particularly in upper floors of old, historic buildings and plenty of green spaces.
Meridian also has the potential for a medical district, anchored by the three major hospitals that have traditionally been fierce competitors. ULI recommended that future expansions in the medical community be planned as part of strategic development.
The idea of strategic planning is fundamental. It means making collaborative decisions, which, by definition, means every stakeholder has not only input but a real interest in success.
Another reason to revitalize downtown was not mentioned in the public part of the ULI presentation: Using an enhanced quality of life in downtown to help attract new industry.
Clearly, there is a strong connection between a downtown's quality of life and industrial recruitment, and both merit equal attention. Companies trying to decide where to expand or relocate always examine in detail their potential host cities the available workforce, available industrial or commercial sites, and educational and cultural opportunities for its managers and their families.
If Meridian is serious about celebrating what's here and logically, publicly, strategically and comprehensively planning for what might one day come, a lot of people are going to have to give up a little of their own turf for the sake of the greater good. That's what collaboration is all about.
Buddy Bynum is editor of The Meridian Star. Call him at 693-1551, ext. 3213, or e-mail bbynum@themeridianstar.com.

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