NLC City Showcase Highlights Innovative Infrastructure Problems

January 30, 2012
by Sandi Burtseva

The City Showcase exhibition, held annually at NLC's Congress of Cities and Exposition, shines a spotlight on some of the most successful and creative programs from cities and towns across the country. City Showcase winners host display booths at the Congress of Cities, giving attendees the opportunity to explore the details of offering innovative solutions and implementing great city programs. 

Representatives from the selected programs share implementation strategies, successes and lessons learned. In addition to networking, NLC honors participating cities and celebrates their achievements.

Winning programs are selected for their innovative practices. They represent a wide range of geographical locations, city sizes and topic areas. In 2011, the 24 City Showcase participants highlighted the Congress of Cities' concurrent conference topics: infrastructure, green cities, economic development and your city's families. Below are the six infrastructure programs featured in the 2011 City Showcase.

Highway 10/Highway 25 Intersection Upgrade - Big Lake, Minn.

The City of Big Lake, Minn., Highway 10/Highway 25 intersection improvement project has revamped both the mobility and aesthetics of the city's downtown area. The city was able to meet its primary goal - making the high-traffic intersection safer - by adding dedicated turn lanes and widening lanes for truck traffic. The walkability of the downtown area was improved through streetscaping and upgraded crosswalks. 

Additionally, the city improved the aesthetics with a new urban park, electronic reader board for community events and façade upgrade assistance for downtown businesses. The $2 million project was first designed in 2008, and construction was completed in 2011.

Katie Larsen, senior planner for the City of Big Lake, explained that, through coordination between city planners and engineers, Big Lake was able to take the project to another level and truly make it a "downtown revitalization project," implementing the city's downtown design ordinance to "create a sense of place."

While realigning the entire intersection to the East, Big Lake planners were able to create open space and focus on a complete streets policy, emphasizing pedestrian safety, streetscaping, street lighting and benches. 

City Engineer Brad DeWolf noted that, even though the intersection carries some 45,000 vehicles per day, the construction improvements were done during traffic, eliminating the need for a detour that might have limited access to downtown businesses or buildings like City Hall, which occupies one corner of the intersection, establishing it as a core for Big Lake's downtown.

DeWolf also pointed out the innovative funding sources tapped - including the Department of Transportation, the Statewide Health Improvements Program and local auxiliary organizations - ensured that the project did not impact the general fund tax revenue of the city, which was important to the city council. 

Town of Cary's Virtual Interactive Planner (VIP) - Cary, N.C.

The Town of Cary, N.C., developed its Virtual Interactive Planner (VIP) with both "right-brain" and "left-brain" learning types in mind. The online tool uses animated flash programming, green-screen video, printable forms, useful links and flowcharts to facilitate interactive decision-making by breaking down Cary's development process into easy-to-follow steps and, in the process, highlighting opportunities for the public to provide input to the town. 

Developed over the course of 1.5 years beginning in 2008, VIP is designed to help reduce the confusion and intimidation sometimes associated with complex but necessary processes like land development. 

To use VIP, one can type in an address or parcel number, then select possibilities for developing the property from a drop-down menu reflecting the city's ordinances. 

VIP then brings the user the path of development by integrating with Cary's Geographic Information System (GIS), as well as ordinances and all other adopted regulations, providing step-by-step PDF printouts of the process, including all applications and noting all fees and regulations. 

While this was the original vision for VIP, it has now expanded to a "one-stop shop" for everything development related, explained Cary's Communications and Information Planner, Dan Matthys. Citizens can look up all approved development on an interactive map, and access reports and master plans. Not only was the program designed based on the information that residents wanted and needed, it remains dynamic and is regularly updated to provide access to new information.

VIP is the first project of its kind in the nation, and has won awards in planning, communications and GIS, in addition to being covered in a variety of local and international press. 

Gallery Night Trolley - Coral Gables, Fla.

Coral Gables, Fla., is home to the region's original Gallery Night, which was started more than 20 years ago and showcases a broad variety of works, ranging from European and Latin American art masters to outstanding contemporary artists. The free Gallery Night Trolley allows residents and visitors to discover what's happening in the world of art in the city by taking them directly to the galleries' front doors.

Since May 2011, on the first Friday of every month, the dedicated trolley - which makes use of existing resources by revamping a trolley system dating to the 1920s - operates on a fixed route, transporting people for free from gallery to gallery. 

The trolley was implemented in response to low Gallery Night attendance and participation. It attracts more visitors, helping them find and easily access participating galleries, and encouraging them to use municipal parking garages, thereby freeing up on-street parking, while still experiencing downtown Coral Gables.

The number of participating galleries has increased from three to 18. Since its creation, the Gallery Night Trolley's route has been streamlined, cutting the round-trip time by half and bringing added focus on the downtown and galleries that were not in the city's regular trolley route. For visitor convenience, informative maps and brochures are available on the trolley, at galleries and online.

Northeast Central Durham Livability Initiative - Partnership for Sustainable Communities - Durham, N.C.

The Northeast Central Durham (NECD) Livability Initiative - Partnership for Sustainable Communities is a community-driven collaboration implemented in tandem with the Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Transportation (DOT) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to coordinate housing, transportation and to protect the environment. The City of Durham, N.C., Department of Neighborhood Improvement Services supports this community-led initiative along with six other city departments. 

The NECD Livability Initiative is composed of four resident-driven focus areas: (1) Coordinated Public Transportation; (2) Economic and Workforce Development; (3) Multi-functional Green Spaces; and (4) Safe and Healthy Environment.

The project, approximately a year and a half old, is getting neighborhoods and community members actively involved in public policy, by providing them with opportunities to work in concert with city, as well as state, local and federal government. Together, these groups implement sustainable projects and programs throughout NECD, an area of approximately 279 inner city blocks, which has suffered from disinvestment over the past 30 to 40 years. Like many other communities, it was dissected by a highway system as a result of urban renewal programs in the 1970s.

Melva Henry, NECD community engagement manager, explains that this low-wealth community has been harvesting its greatest asset: community leaders. When the program began in 2009, approximately 125 stakeholders came to the table to develop the four focus areas. According to urban designer and NECD resident Wanona Satcher, it has been "very encouraging to see community engagement as part of the planning process and have citizens speak the same language I do ... and using that language to tell city officials and other individuals, and establish those private-public partnerships to really make our city sustainable."

Satcher explains that the program seeks to "reestablish or reknit the urban fabric to bring people back into the community," while focusing on the many significant issues at stake, including small businesses, sustainable development, housing, transportation, ecological restoration and food justice. 

Highland Communications Services - Highland, Ill.

Highland Communication Services (HCS) is a municipally owned telecommunications company that provides advanced fiber optic services, including voice, data and video, to the Highland, Ill., community to serve the needs of local businesses and residents. HCS was developed in response to citizens' overwhelming enthusiasm for creating a fiber-to-the-premises system. The growing organization strives to improve Highland's quality of life and strengthen business opportunities.

The City of Highland, which has just under 10,000 residents, has become known as the first municipality in the state of Illinois to implement a fiber-to-the-premise network, allowing the city to provide telecommunications services, including television, telephone, and internet services to businesses and residents. 

In the wake of the Telecommunications Act, Highland saw a decline in the quality of services offered, accompanied by an increase in price. Realizing that they need cost-effective, high-speed broadband to compete in a global marketplace, citizens developed a grassroots committee to address the situation. The city was committed to reaching all critical community institutions, including all libraries, schools, businesses, municipal buildings, as well as the county government. 

The business plan was developed in 2008, and engineering began in 2009. In April of 2011, HCS began taking on its first customers. To date, HCS has an overall penetration of 17.8 percent, with 30 percent penetration in the critical business areas. While the system currently offers about 1,000 megabits to every subscriber, future plans budget an increase to 10,000 - and eventually 100,000. 

Joint Wastewater Treatment Facility - Lexington, S.C.

The Town of Lexington and the City of Cayce, S.C., as well as the Lexington County Joint Municipal Water and Sewer Commission, have unanimously agreed and begun moving forward on construction of a new 25 million-gallon-per-day (MGD), state-of-the-art wastewater treatment facility. 

The project will expand the City of Cayce's existing treatment capacity, which currently accommodates 9.2 MGD on the Congaree River. That facility has already seen $2 million of investment in recent years.

The new plant will serve the majority of Lexington County, and each participant will be paying for their "projected" capacity for treatment, with Lexington investing 48.9 percent, Cayce at 31.7 percent and the Joint Water Commission at 18.5 percent.

While regional consolidation is the primary goal, Lexington's Events & Media Coordinator, Jennifer Dowden, explained that the region's expanded growth - 83 percent in the last 10 years - calls for an upgrade in infrastructure. 

"Building partnerships is our number one key," Dowden said. "Making sure we're together with our neighboring communities in providing the citizens with the best service possible." She added that the construction of the facility, which is expected to be operational in the summer of 2012, has already created 100 construction jobs.