What will it take to make GNV thrive?

I wrote this for The Sun last week.

Is Gainesville a thriving city?

Does Gainesville aspire to thrive?

What does a thriving city even look like.

“What is a thriving city and who is it thriving for?,” poses Ty Buckman. “That has to be defined by the people who live in the city. What thriving means for Gainesville might not mean the same thing as it means for Portland, Or.”

Ty Buckman introduces the Gainesville Thriving initiative

Buckman, director of the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advance Studies in Culture was at the Cade Wednesday to talk about the Gainesville Thriving Project, an initiative launched by the Community Foundation of North Central Florida in collaboration with UVA’s Thriving Cities Lab.

Work on the initiative began earlier this year when Lab personnel surveyed 106 community leaders, stakeholders and others involved in aspects of Gainesville’s cultural, economic and social life.

And from those surveys, follow-up discussions and related research, the Lab was able to draw several preliminary conclusions regarding prevailing attitudes about Gainesville.

For instance:

What will it take to make GNV a thriving city?

People who have lived here for a long time have a more positive view of the city than those who arrived more recently. White residents give Gainesville a higher grade than minorities do. Similarly, those living on the west side tend to view east Gainesville in a more negative light then do the people who actually live on the east side.

“A tale of two cities is a common thread” in survey results, said Ed Hasecke, a political science professor affiliated with the lab.

There is a town-gown communications gap.

People in the city generally don’t know how to talk to people at the University of Florida when it comes to confronting community challenges…and vice versa. UF “has the resources but are frustrated because they can’t figure out how to move things forward,” said Hasecke. He said discussions with UF leaders ran toward “We have a plan, we’re going forward” with or without the community.

And an affordable housing problem.

Gainesville has significant problems with housing affordability – more than half of residents say living here poses a financial burden – low third grade reading scores, high child care costs and employment diversity. “The industries you have now favor people who are well educated,” Hasecke said.

There is a general lack of confidence in Gainesville’s elected/civic leaders. “Gainesville is at present a city that is difficult to lead,” Hasecke said. He pointed to one years-long controversy that is still having a negative impact on public confidence in government.

Confidence in local government is not high.

“The biomass plant, you are still haunted by that,” he said. “People talk about it like it happened six moths ago.”

People are wary of changes in the city being brought about by growth and new development. “There is a high level of anxiety that you are going to lose something essential to what’s important to you,” he said.

Based on the surveys and interviews, the Lab also issued a sort of report card for Gainesville institutions.

Santa Fe College received the highest rating in the survey.

In the education sector, UF received a B-plus and the county school system got a C-minus. Only Santa Fe College merited an A. “Santa Fe College got the highest score of anything in the survey,” Hasecke said.

The city’s parks, museums and performing arts venues all got B or B-plus ratings. But downtown got a C-minus on the beauty scale.

Local government and social services agencies got a C-minus, while law enforcement came in at B-minus and utilities received a C.

Law enforcement rated a B-plus.

“Our impression in March (when the surveys were done) was that Gainesville saw itself as being stuck, that things aren’t happening, not moving forward,” said Buckman. But he added that such pessimism may not be wholly warranted.

“When we came here it looked like things were happening all over the city,” he said. “What looked to you like being stuck looked to me like ‘man, this town is on fire!’”

From the surveys and discussions conducted so far, Buckman concluded “First and foremost what you want is a safe and economically prosperous city. You think about things like equity a lot. You are concerned about a diverse community…with sharing resources equitably. You want a creative community and a collaborative community.

“This vision of what you want is reflective of what you want to overcome,” he added.

Phase 2 of the initiative, beginning later this summer and continuing into next year, will involved more in-depth interviews, community discussions and focus groups aimed at identifying available resources, unique challenges and specific projects that may help move Gainesville closer to thriving city status.

“Our focus is to help local leaders thrive in a period of change, help the city work for all of its citizens and represent the interest of the city for the long term thriving of Gainesville.” Buckman said. “We want to identify projects that help build the capacity to take on even more difficult projects.” By way of example, he pointed to Depot Park as a project that earned considerable public approval and cleared the way for a South Main Street revival.

Depot Park is a GNV success story.

“Depot Park used to be a superfund site,” he said. Even so, Gainesville managed to build it “without UF writing a check for you.”

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