The Long, Long Haul of Civic Progress

Projects that define cities are complex, difficult undertakings. We need a template for putting these efforts together.
by | August 5, 2015

Otis White

President of Civic Strategies Inc.

In March, Mayor Bob Buckhorn dedicated the latest section of Tampa's Riverwalk, which now stretches nearly two miles down a river and along a channel leading to Tampa Bay. As he cut the ribbon, Buckhorn said something that must have puzzled some in the audience: "This is a day that we have waited for for decades."

For decades? Actually, yes. You see, the Tampa Riverwalk was proposed in 1975 by then-Mayor Bill Poe -- as a Bicentennial project. The celebration of the American Bicentennial was in 1976. The Riverwalk has, well, taken longer than expected.

By all accounts, the Riverwalk is spectacular. It loops under a bridge and over the Hillsborough River, giving strollers the sensation of walking on water. It ties together several parks and museums, a performing-arts center and the city's convention center. It offers downtown Tampa a gathering place it has long needed, and it has already sparked development of new restaurants and nightclubs.

But why did it take 40 years to complete? The simple answer is that it was more or less forgotten for 30 years before another mayor, Pam Iorio, revived it and drove it to completion.

But the more interesting story is this this is how many great civic projects proceed, in fits and starts. That is, they are launched with a bang, only to lose momentum and fall into a deep sleep until a new leader comes along and figures out how to revive them. It's a little like Prince Charming. But instead of a kiss, the new leader applies strategy, persuasion, persistence ... and an occasional kick in the pants.

This is just one of the surprising patterns I've found in the last four years from interviewing leaders of successful civic projects. Here's another: The leaders learn almost exclusively on the job.

This is puzzling considering how important these projects are. Civic projects are a basic unit of progress and, really, the only way cities make purposeful changes. Think about your own city and its milestones. They might include things like creating a modern transit system, building a new art museum, overhauling the government's structure, bringing in professional sports ... or building a riverwalk. Each of these things was a civic project, with a beginning, middle and end -- and clearly defined results.

And, yet, most mayors, city managers, Chamber of Commerce executives, nonprofit directors and foundation leaders come to their jobs knowing little about creating these basic units of progress. Why? Because no one teaches it. There are no graduate schools of civic project management, no seminars, no books, not even a website you can visit. And this, I've learned, is why many great projects begin with a long hibernation. Once the idea is formed, nobody knows what to do with it.

It doesn't have to be this way. Civic projects are complex undertakings operating in difficult environments. They require a set of talents and skills that must be assembled: people who can think strategically, apply a jeweler's eye to tasks and details, and muster the political skills to steer projects around obstacles. Every community has these people. What they don't have is a template for putting these efforts together.

Want to do your city a favor? Find an organization willing to create just such a template (or set of templates) by interviewing the leaders of successful civic projects. Then make the templates widely available, so the next mayor with a great idea doesn't have to wait 40 years to watch his city walk on water.

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