NLC's City Showcase Programs Set a High Bar for Economic Development

February 6, 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.

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 economic development programs featured in the 2011 City Showcase. [See the January 30, 2012 issue of Nation's Cities Weekly to read about of the six infrastructure programs featured in the 2011 showcase.]

Virginia Beach, Va.: Green Destination - Virginia Beach, Va. 

The Virginia Beach tourism and hospitality industry has committed to decreasing its environmental footprint and providing environmentally friendly alternatives for visitors. As a result, the city has been named the commonwealth's first "Virginia Green Destination." This designation indicates that Virginia Beach has more than 100 businesses that are certified "Virginia Green" by the state.

The program provides a global approach to incorporating sustainability efforts of the Convention and Visitors Bureau - which includes the Virginia Beach Convention Center and Visitor Information Center, the Virginia Beach hospitality industry and the City of Virginia Beach.

Both hospitality industry patrons - 33 percent of whom indicated that environmentally friendly hotels and resorts are important to them in a 2010 TripAdvisor survey - and local meeting planners spurred the city towards environmentalism. Partnering with the state, Virginia Beach acted as a catalyst to expand the Virginia Green program from hotels to other establishments, such as restaurants and attractions. The city boasts the first green restaurant and the first green attraction - the Virginia Beach aquarium. Other steps included a shift to hybrid buses and recycling on the city's oceanfront. The current pilot project is encouraging composting in local restaurants.

Virginia Beach has also brought its Convention Center to the highest sustainability standard - LEED Gold. LEED's multi-faceted program challenged the city to improve in many different areas - from indoor air quality, to cleaning chemicals, to environmentally friendly paints and solvents. These efforts have paid off for the center. "We've trimmed about $200,000 a year off our energy bill. And ... $200,000 off an $800,000 power bill means [we] can save some jobs. And that's exactly what we did," said the convention center's General Manager Courtney Dyer.

City of Boulder's Flexible Rebate Incentive - Boulder, Colo.

Boulder, Colo.'s flexible rebate incentive program allows companies to apply for financial incentives when they verify compliance with community and environmental sustainability guidelines. These guidelines were key to the city council adopting Boulder's first business incentive program in October 2006. The city features the only rebate incentive in the country tied to compliance with broad community sustainability policies.

The program focuses on incentivizing primary employers, which are defined as companies that have more than 50 percent of their revenue coming in to the Boulder county area. "We see this as a way to invest in companies that are investing in Boulder," said Boulder Economic Vitality Coordinator Liz Hanson.

The city's sustainability goals have environmental, economic and social aspects, sometimes called the "triple bottom line." The application form begins by asking companies what type of community, environmental and social guidelines they can commit to meeting. By providing a variety of options, Boulder has ensured the program's success, Hanson explained. 

Once a company applies, the city identifies what kinds of use taxes, sales taxes and permit fees the company will be paying into the city over the following three years, dispensing with the need for annual applications. Applications are then approved by the city manager, and companies sign rebate agreements that commit them to meeting the guidelines they've agreed to.

The program appeals to a variety of companies of different sizes and types - from large national employers like IBM to local natural goods and wind energy companies. Hanson noted that even those guidelines that companies may not initially commit to plant ideas for their future in Boulder. "We've found that it's actually a very effective tool for business retention and attraction," she said.

Potosi Brewery Restoration - Potosi, Wis.

The Potosi Brewery operated for 120 years, from 1852 until 1972. When it closed, the buildings were left to deteriorate, creating an eyesore, danger and health hazard. As part of an economic development project, the building was restored, housing, among other things, the National Brewery Museum, as well as an Interpretive Center for the Great River Road. The reopened Potosi Brewery is the only non-profit brewery in the country.

Potosi, a small community of 700, is located on the Mississippi River and on a scenic byway known as the Great River Road. After the brewery closed and many residents working in nearby Dubuque, Iowa, suffered as local industries closed or made significant cutbacks, Potosi - rural, but not isolated - looked to tourist dollars as a source of revenue.
"What we did is probably an example of economic development from within. Instead of bringing something from outside into the community, we looked at our resources and our assets and figured out what we could build on," explained Potosi Village President Frank Fiorenza. Potosi drew on the lure of Mississippi River and the brewery redevelopment project and has enjoyed considerable success.

Since the museum opened in June 2008, it has had approximately 160,000 visitors. The renewed economic life has attracted new businesses and allowed existing ones to flourish. An independent study concluded that the restored brewery and museum have had an impact of at least $4.2 million on the community and region. 

Our Grandchildren's Future - Eunice, N.M.

The goal of Our Grandchildren's Future's goal is to revitalize the downtown area for improved economic development and quality of life in Eunice, New Mexico - a small oil and gas community of about 3,000 people. This program includes completely rebuilding seven blocks of downtown with underground electrics, new lighting, medians, numerous trees and plants and a family-friendly atmosphere. The city installed a new waste-water system and rebuilt the entire main and some secondary water lines. Eunice also rebuilt the senior and teen centers, Girl and Boy Scout huts, and added a new aquatic facility - the previous swimming pool was 75 years old, cracked and unusable - and elementary school.

The program began about six years ago, championed by Eunice Mayor Matt White during his bid for office. So far, $4.5 million has gone into revitalizing more than four blocks of the downtown area, with about four more still left to work on. Financing for the project has come from state and federal sources, city grants, as well as foundations.

Mayor White is still looking to the future: His next ambition is to revamp Eunice's small lake into an accessible and complete recreational area. "I think any city can do what we did as a small city. You've got to start early, you've got to go after every bit of grant money you can get, you've got to go after federal monies, you've got to talk to foundations and you've got to get your citizens involved. Every project we have they bought into and they support," White said.

One Block at a Time - A Concentrated Neighborhood Investment - Independence, Mo.

One Block at a Time is an effort to attract reinvestment and return families to the northwest quadrant of the City of Independence through targeted infrastructure and housing improvements, and economic development. The program identifies individual residential blocks, each no more than a quarter mile long, and completely transforms their physical environment. The infrastructure on each block is evaluated and repaired or replaced, and housing units and vacant lots are assessed and redeveloped. To date, three residential blocks have been targeted, two of which are now complete.

While Independence has seen significant development over the last 15-20 years, the northwest area - the oldest part of the town - has not experienced similar prosperity. The community once housed a major oil refinery and manufacturing that formed a stable employment base. Those companies have gone, leaving behind environmental issues, crumbling infrastructure and disheartened residents. "Folks stopped seeing that as a place where they'd want to raise their families," explained Independence City Manager Robert Heacock.

The city government was careful to listen to the needs, likes and dislikes of of residents; group together stakeholders - the city, the school districts, the local chamber of commerce and residents themselves; and begin by addressing basic infrastructure, like parks, streets and stormwater treatment. According to Heacock, reincorporating this area into the Independence school district was a turning point for residents: "people felt like they could change anything and that they owned that area."

Independence was able to harness this sentiment by organizing a community clean-up day for local schools. More than 2,000 residents spent the weekend volunteering, donating some 700 hours of painting - an important infrastructure boost that Independence could not have afforded if not for a motivated and engaged citizenry.

Independence has since been addressing infrastructure issues block by block - making use of private sector partnerships, social service agencies and community volunteers, as well as national organizations like Habitat for Humanity and federal funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Riverwalk Project: A New Era of Development - Rock Hill, S.C.

The City of Rock Hill and development partner Greens of Rock Hill have joined together in a unique brownfields redevelopment venture. Entrepreneurs saw vast potential beyond the environmental obstacles associated with this 1,000-acre-plus brownfields site, which once housed a large manufacturer that closed eight years ago, leaving it abandoned.

The Riverwalk mixed-use development was designed with an innovative funding model that drastically reduced risks to Rock Hill and its taxpayers. Upon completion, the project is expected to produce more than $645 million in public and private investment, increase property taxes by $4 million annually and generate 4,000 new jobs for Rock Hill.

The Riverwalk trail has opened up river access to the community for the first time. The project revolves around an active/outdoor lifestyle model and incorporates residential, commercial and industrial elements. It is also designed to expand Rock Hill's sports tourism niche. The city will be hosting the 2012 National Youth Soccer Championship, and, with the addition of the velodrome (a banked bicycle track) as a new Riverwalk amenity, has also lured the U.S. Cycling Association for a summer 2012 race that will attract Olympic-caliber cyclists. Riverwalk also boasts the first BMX Supercross track on the East coast.