We’ve done well economically, but we haven’t geared up to take full advantage of the opportunities that await us, a planning consultant told some of the city’s leading citizens Wednesday night.
A mismatch between opportunity and capacity to achieve things
Greg Flisram, an economic development specialist at the Texas-based Kendig Keast Collaborative, said there is a disconnect between the assets the city has and its capacity to turn its potential into reality.
Kendig Keast is just past the midpoint of a massive two-year study that will lead to a comprehensive plan to guide the city’s growth over the next two decades. Flisram, the economic specialist for the consulant’s team, gave a citizen task force a lot to mull over in a fact-filled, two hour presentation. And along the way, he got some feedback from the people he was engaging.
Here are a few of the points he stressed:
A city economic development agency
- It’s important for the city to stop relying on being lucky and get into the economic development game. This means hiring an economic development staff with a budget and perhaps a commission to make the city a magnet for high quality companies and for entrepreneurs just starting out. Flisram stressed that the city economic development agency would complement, not duplicate, what the Chamber of Commerce does. If the Chamber convinces big companies to come here and see what the city has to offer, the city agency’s job is to ensure that they will be pleased by what they see.
Don’t settle for just anything on the I24/840 Inerchange
- The I 24/840 is a valuable piece of real estate that should be reserved for its “highest and best use. This is a case where the council (my words, not his) should get over the idea that all growth is equally good. It would be a shame, for example, if a car dealership went in there.There are at least 200 acres of prime land out there, and the best use, Flisram said, is for corporate office spaces and tech companies. These offices should be complemented by commercial uses that serve the people working in the offices. There could even be high density residential units there. He suggested possibly “land banking” the property out there to save it for the most valuable uses.
Joe B. Jackson is no place for smokestack industry
- In a talk with me after the meeting, Flisram said he is not high on logistics and warehousing uses. They simply don’t provide that many jobs. He added that the Joe B Jackson area should be a suburban business park, with attractive buildings, nice landscaping and without old-fashioned smokestack industries. If the city wants manufacturing it should go for green manufacturing, he stressed.
A need to get MTSU more engaged as a partner with the city
- One of the biggest assets the city has is Middle Tennessee State University, the largest undergrad university in the state. But it hasn’t been actively engaged yet in the remaking of the city. Flisram said the university should “plant its flag” around Murfreesboro by becoming an investment partner with the city.
Innovation districts, incubators and accelerators
- It’s important to make Mufreesboro place that welcomes and encourages entrepreneurs. Flisram supports formation of an innovation district, not at Joe B Jackson where I had hoped, but in the city itself or out by the university. Innovation districts are the opposite of what Silicon Valley and North Carolina’s Research Triangle used to be. Instead of guarding research behind closed-off sites, innovation districts foster the exchange of ideas by bringing people together, sometimes from competing companies. Two researchers, for example, might come up with the next iPhone while sharing coffee at a cafe or while working out at a health club in the district.
Flisram pointed to Chattanooga’s innovation district as an example of the recent trend to put innovation districts in the heart of cities to help revitalize decaying downtown areas. Innovation districts not only provide office and work spaces for people just stating out but have incubators to help them get off the ground with legal and financial advice. Once these companies start growing, they can turn to accelerators who advise them on how to grow faster.
Multi-family housing will jump start the downtown
- The downtown area is prime real estate, but it is underdeveloped. He recommended forming a separate redevelopment agency to spearhead the effort. The city manager and several council members could serve on the agency’s board, but redevelopment works better if deals are not negotiated in public meetings.
TIFs and tax abatement can spark redevelopment
Flisram said getting property owners to cooperate with redevelopment can be an art form that takes tact and negotiating skills that a typical developer might not have. The agency could package land and then call in developers to take it from there. He advocated use of tax increment financing in which rising property values generate added tax revenue which is used to pay off bonds issued for a project. Another tool is tax abatement, which gives property owners a temporary tax break if they improve their properties.
- Redevelopment woks best if cities lead with housing. Flisram said the whole economic growth game plan has been turned on is head. Cities once competed for manufacturing, and these companies went wherever they could get the cheapest costs and the most goodies from a city. Workers followed these companies. But in today’s world, the high tech companies that everyone wants to attract follow the skilled workers. To get skilled workers, you need a vibrant and exciting urban scene and a lot of quality apartments, townhouses and condominiums. Downtown apartments are a catalyst.
LaLance asks if downtown redevelopment makes sense
Councilman Rick LaLance, who attended the meeting, played devil’s advocate by suggesting it may not be practical to redevelop the downtown with its current crowding and narrow streets. Flisram said the city should encourage urban nodes outside downtown but it shouldn’t shortchange the latter. Downtown will be what draws young urban professionals and older empty nesters to come and stay here.
Many professionals here, but they work elsewhere
- Murfreesboro has a lot of professionals now, but they migrate from the city to work. It’s important to find jobs for them here and for MTSU grads, who will leave if there aren’t more opportunities in town.
- The city should not try to be everything to everybody. Its strengths are as an education and health/wellness center, a sports and tourism attraction, and maybe even a place for post-production work on music recordings. It could also try to be part of an I-24 aerospace-avionics corridor, the same market Smyrna is targeting with its airport-based business park.
Leaking dollars to corporate headquarters
- It’s time to take a look at the number of franchise businesses coming here. Flisram isn’t advocating a ban on such companies. He is only pointing out that much of the profit of the chain businesses goes back to corporate headquarters while most of what a local business makes stays in this economy.
- It’s a good thing to get cars off of street parking places and lots, but structured parking is expensive. Flisram put the cost at $20,000-$25,000 a parking space. If the goal is to get parked cars out of sight, the city may have to provide financial incentives to developers to build garages or build them itself.
It’s time to be more selective
A constant theme in his presentation was that the city should be picky and not just applaud every development proposal that comes before it.
“A series of auto parts stores,” he said (referring to Broad Street) may not be the highest and best use.”
Aaron Tuley, another team member, stressed the importance of mixing uses, such as commercial and high-density residential.
“The age of Euclidean zoning is over,” he said.