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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Dear Candidate

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[INSIGHT]

A downtown election year primer

When I was a journalist, I loved election years. They were roller-coasters, years when anything could happen (and generally did), and the candidate quotes were often eye-opening. Local races were especially interesting, featuring a wide variety of candidates with varying degrees of experience and relevant background who would run for a variety of reasons. I remember the candidate for mayor whose sole interest was to legalize marijuana, and many others who seemed confused as to what roles the different governmental entities played. It is a learning experience – not only for the candidates, but for those who will be voting them into office.

Wouldn’t it be great for these candidates to have a primer on important issues to get them going on their way? I’m happy to start it.

Dear Candidate: First, thank you for running. You are asking for a job in which the hours are long, the pay is lousy, and the second-guessing is intense. The good work you do may never be realized or appreciated, but our community needs that good work now more than ever.

Our area has far more needs than money to pay for them. We cannot grow or annex our way out of them, and very hard, smart, longrange decisions loom. I want you to know that downtown Shreveport is a smart decision. Downtown is where Shreveport got started and is the nexus of our vibrant history.

Our downtown was once the center of shopping and business, and we were recognized nationally for music. It is still our largest tax base, the center of government, courts, the financial sector, our gaming industry, and is our headquarters for festivals and the arts. Downtown is home to more than 1,200 businesses, not-for-profits and governmental entities.

Trends experts and smart growth advocates around the country point to the need for strong downtowns because of their significant tax contributions (money collected in downtowns goes to general funds and helps pay for needs city- and parish-wide), and the continuing desire of Millennials and other age demographics to live, work and play there. They point to the fact that no healthy city has a sick and blighted downtown and that cities are daily judged on the look, quality, amenities and safety of their city centers.

Downtown Shreveport has the largest share of historically relevant commercial buildings in the region; these are buildings that bring in private investment dollars from local and out-of-town developers. These investment dollars create new residential opportunities, new businesses, additional employees and a stronger tax base as values rise and more goods and buildings are bought and sold. All this is happening now, but for it to continue – and increase – we will need your help, candidate.

Downtown is infrastructure-dense with streets, sidewalks, light poles, bus stops, signage, parking meters, traffic lights, crosswalks, overpasses, curbs, alleys, drainage systems, water and sewer lines, and I add trees into that list. Motorists hit everything in sight – especially light poles. One hundred- year-old water lines spring leaks, sidewalks shift, trees die, constant diligence is needed. Business owners think twice about investing if they feel government is unconcerned with their surroundings. Residents feel no sense of pride, visitors and potential investors just stay away. Downtown needs continuing support to stay clean, neat, safe and attractive.

Not all vacant and underutilized buildings downtown are this way just because no one wants them; in fact, very few are. Some are owned by people who refuse to sell or want more than the market can bear, some are tied up in federal tax liens, some have multiple tax owners. Some owners are allowing their property to fall into ruin. Downtown needs the continued partnership and assistance of multiple governmental entities to assist in dealing with this myriad of issues – from help making well-placed phone calls to partnering on potential changes in local and state law.

There are some things that it takes a governmental entity to do, or at least to lead the way on. Arts and culture CAN equal money and jobs. Shreveport Common, a nineblock art and culture district in downtown, is one of a number of arts-related entities and businesses that make downtown – and our community – a better place. Art is not just quality of life frou-frou, it can be a serious development tool. Please consider it in this light.

We have TWO waterfronts! Cities across the country would give almost anything for just one. Waterfronts are magnets to locals and tourists, to developers, to investor dollars. We still have many opportunities for conversations about the property along the Red River waterfront and a remarkable opportunity on Cross Bayou. Proper development that creates synergy and connection with downtown Shreveport is incredibly important. We encourage efforts to acquire property and do the environmental work needed to make this property valuable to developers.

Conversation is important, especially conversation that engages the properties and businesses that have chosen downtown Shreveport as a place to locate and grow. A free-flowing back-and-forth of information can also help avoid the law of unintended consequences, that uh-oh moment after you’ve done something well-intentioned only to discover a problem you never even considered.

You’re going to have a lot on your plate in these next months. You’ll be learning how the city operates, budgetary constraints, and who is responsible for what. It will be an exciting experience, and we want to make sure you have the best possible information about our growing and developing downtown. Contact us, and let’s work together to make our downtown – and community – stronger and better for all!

Liz Swaine is the executive director of the Downtown Development Authority. She can be reached at liz@downtownshreveport.com.

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