Mobile has already taken small steps and is close to dramatically improving the quality of life for those living, working and visiting downtown Mobile, Carol Coletta, president and CEO of Memphis River Parks Partnership, said at Downtown Mobile Alliance’s annual meeting.
It was the first such gathering of downtown business and community leaders in two years, due to the pandemic, and it’s the ongoing issue that threatens to change the landscapes of downtowns and cities all over the country, Coletta said.
The pandemic showed it was possible for folks to work from home and telecommute to the office. This shift means more people — especially younger workers — can choose a city to live in based on more than just where their job is, Coletta said. It is estimated, she said, that as many as 22 percent of the American workforce will work from home permanently.
“It means now more than ever quality of life is the most important factor,” Coletta said. “If people don’t want to live in your city, it’s hard to keep the economy going.”
The first job in attracting residents, or visitors to a city is to make that city’s downtown “a place where people want to come,” she said.
Given that workers can more easily choose where to live based on preferences besides jobs, competition to attract residents gets more intense, Coletta said.
“Downtown Mobile must keep getting better because of competition,” she said. “You need to make the most of your assets.”
In the case of most downtowns, assets include walkability, greater public realms, like parks, diverse uses and diverse people, Coletta said.
“For lucky ones that includes a waterfront and Mobile is one of the lucky ones,” she said.
Also, for downtowns, small things tend to get overlooked. For example, Coletta said, many times downtowns will use a four or five lane street when two lanes are needed, or cities will put in good sidewalks, but allow right turns on redlights. There is also the common issue with close, suburban-style parking, instead of a park and walk mentality.
Another issue with downtowns, like Mobile’s, is a waterfront that is cutoff from the rest of the city by big streets with lots of traffic, she said.
Coletta was pleased to hear about the DMA’s street optimization plan, which would make the downtown area more walkable and would make the waterfront more accessible.
“You’ve got great bones and a great plan, but do you have the political will to execute it?” she asked. “Comparatively speaking, you’ve got small moves to make. Good for you.”
In some cases, Coletta said, downtowns have to “fake it until you make it,” and Mobile is no exception. She mentioned the pop up shops, store fronts and events that make visiting downtown more interesting.
“It’s easy to overlook the small moves we can take to make downtown successful,” she said.
On parks, Coletta told the group to be creative and look to other areas and even other countries for inspiration.
“Don’t be afraid to break the mold on what Americans think of parks,” she said.
The DMA also used the event to hold an awards ceremony. The first prize awarded was the downtown inspiration award, which is given to individuals or entities that “have taken leadership roles in transformational initiatives. The winners include: the J.L. Bedsole Foundation, the Providence Hospital Foundation, Stacy Wellborn and Suzanne Sarver, CPSI and Dr. Bert Eichold, Mobile County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood and Mayor Sandy Stimpson.
The DMA also recognized “excellence in the renovation of a vacant or underutilized building” with its adaptive reuse award. The winners include: Fort Conde Village, Brad Custred, as well as Bob Isakson and the Greer family.
In its excellence in facade improvement, DMA honored three downtown business owners: Tim Turner, Jerry Ehlen and Noell Broughton.
DMA also awarded an excellence in public realm, which “recognizes transformational improvements in our streets, sidewalks, or parks.” The winners include: John Goodloe and the Mobile Arts Council for a mural honoring Mobile native E.O. Wilson.
The engaging third places award went to popular places people visited that weren’t a home or office. The winners include: David Nelson, of Braided River Brewing Company and Tony Sawyer, of Bob’s Downtown Restaurant.
The excellence in architecture and design award went to the general managers of the Renaissance Riverview Plaza and the Battle House Hotel in Margo Gilbert and Kent Blackinton.
The Community Foundation of South Alabama and Rebecca Byrne were honored with the excellence in new construction award for the organization’s new space downtown.
Finally, DMA awarded the Bienville award. It “recognizes an individual or entity who positively affects the lives of Mobilians. The winners include: The Mobile County Public School System and the Barton Academy Foundation, as well as Mobile City councilors Bess Rich, John Williams and Fred Richardson.
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