Idea Factory

In 1776, Thomas Paine wrote that inhabitants of our new nation were living in “times that try men’s souls.”

For those interested in the future of our city, we’re living in times that try our consciences. It’s hard not to look at the city’s ever-unfolding ambitious plans and wonder if they aren’t part of some sort of cosmic cynicism test. On the one hand, you can (as with any city) drive around Montgomery for a half an hour and easily pick out some signs of the ample work that needs to be done. On the other? Well, what are you going to do about it?

Our issues are evident, but it’s a testament to the current crop of city leaders that there appear to be some well-considered schemes for what to do to address them.

What does one make of the pictures of how Montgomery used to be? Contemporary observers may well be puzzled by the pictures of urban crowds, downtown department stores, actual residential density, functioning public transportation. Could this really be our city? It used to be.

1985: A good year for downtown re-birth

And that’s why it’s important to view the city’s various revitalization plans with proper historical context. People have been talking about fixing downtown since at least the 1980s, and probably before. We’ve written before, and probably will again, about how roads, tract homes, suburbanization, and de-segregation led to a hollowing out of our urban core. And the progress in the past decade or so has undeniably been enormous and well-documented: minor league baseball in a gem of a stadium, a towering high-end hotel, Thai food, brand new riverfront facilities, lofts, several bars and restaurants.

But city leaders have even more in mind. And they hope you do too. When presented with a vision or a dream, you have the opportunity to believe in it, or to decry it. That’s what I mean about the cynicism test. Very smart people who love Montgomery a lot have some ideas about making our city better. And they want to incorporate our thoughts too. If you’re a cynic, you’ll scoff at such a notion as PR. But if you let yourself believe, you’ll say that it’s one of the greatest and most admirable attempts at grassroots responsiveness by a government in quite some time. And frankly, I’m actually in the latter camp.

The question is: Do you believe it?

All of this was racing around my mind when I went to the City’s latest effort in this vein: the “Idea Factory.”

The what?

Remember two years ago when one of our city’s largest employers, Colonial Bank, went bankrupt in the sixth-largest bank collapse in American history? Well, the City of Montgomery bought One Court Square from Colonial for $3 million and is now going to call the address “One Dexter Avenue” and will call the 1972 building The Questplex. It will house the main branch of the public library and a new children’s museum … and probably some other stuff too.

I only mention this because that’s where the city’s first-ever Idea Factory was held. It was in the new offices of the new Department of Development, which is breaking away from the Department of Planning. See, Planning and Development used to be one department, but according to the presentation at the Idea Factory, they didn’t want to recruit businesses out of the same department that regulated them. So now there’ll be two departments: one for the cheerleading and seducing, the other for the permitting and compliance stuff.

So, the new Department of Development will be at The Questplex — and their new digs are pretty nice. More importantly, the substance of their ideas is actually pretty inspiring. They want to know what you think Montgomery needs. Sure, they want you to buy a building downtown and open a lucrative business. But they also want to know what businesses you want to see recruited to come to our city. And that’s the theme of this week’s Idea Factory, which, incidentally, is going to be a weekly thing. And I think that’s fantastic. More idea factories, please.

Montgomery could put the river to use

That’s what I mean about the whole grassroots thing. The folks in the Department of Development seemed genuinely eager for the city government to have a respectful working relationship with the public. Want to come in and check out maps of the city? They’ve got those. Want to know how much those boarded-up department stores on Dexter cost? They’ll tell you (answer: It’s probably less than you think). Want to use their space to host a meeting? Give ’em a call. They want Montgomery to flourish and grow, and hearing them talk, I felt like a part of a genuine community that was united by an interest in the common good.

Citizen providing input

 

 

 

 

 

The “what do you want to see recruited to Montgomery” session is Thursday at the Department of Development’s HQ, right there facing the Court Square fountain. They’re also looking for folks to ride to Atlanta with them on a bus to look at some pedestrian-friendly development over there. If you’ve got $40 and a Thursday (April 14) to take off from work, it would be awesome to get some real lessons from what a neighboring city does. The tour, which will leave at 7:30 a.m. and return 12 hours later, will examine Inman Park, Glenwood Park, Westside, and the Sweet Auburn retail districts. They’re limiting the trip to 40 folks, but it would be cool to get some ideas about what Montgomery should do (or not do).

Also, they’re hosting a special screening of a documentary called Fresh as part of the grand opening of the downtown urban farm. The movie looks cool and is the latest in a long line of such productions that really ought to revolutionize our lifestyles. They’re linking it to Montgomery’s inaugural “Eco-Week,” which is definitely a good thing. Maybe by next year’s Eco-Week, we’ll have found a way to make curbside recycling a viable option.

The bottom line here is that you can go into an Idea Factory and roll your eyes and say that these optimistic drawings of lush downtown parks are all just pipe dreams, as immaterial as the new “City of Dreams” branding campaign (which, oddly, I couldn’t find on YouTube or on the City’s website). You can say that Montgomery will continue to lose population and will never recruit the kind of businesses we want. But I think that would be missing the point. Too many people are saying those things. Heck, too many people aren’t even paying attention. It may be true that you could build a house out of the well-intentioned plans to improve Montgomery, but the only thing that is going to bridge the gap to actualizing those plans is a lot of hard work by citizens who care.

City officials talk to citizens about the new Department of Development

I’m looking forward to being a part of that process.

I may not end up agreeing with everything the city does as it continues to develop and re-develop Montgomery. But anyone who wants to complain can’t say that they didn’t have the chance to be a part of the complex and extremely difficult experience of making our city the best that it can be.

The City’s new Department of Development can be reached at 241-2728.

What's the Montgomery you want to see?

 

 

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There Are 3 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Hip new things happening downtown is more than a dream. I just this past Friday facilitated a brainstorming session for the Downtown Business Association . We generated two pages of ideas and selected a project to pursue. Can’t spill the beans about it just yet AND all will be pleased and excited when the announcement is made–which I think will be very soon.

  2. Jay Croft says:

    I have to be a bit cynical about some things. Montgomery Mall, the “plasma plant,” recycling are just a few. Traffic on Zelda Road–I very seldom patronize the eateries there because it’s hell to get out of certain establishments into traffic. The streets around Country’s BBQ are nothing short of insane.

    But I’m also glad that things are moving forward!

  3. Heather C says:

    More info on the weekly meetings please? 🙂

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