Getting Civic Projects Going

It is a difficult process, as we haave seen with the revitalization of our downtown, and this article from Governing Magazine suggests an answer.

An excerpt.

In March, Mayor Bob Buckhorn dedicated the latest section of Tampa’s Riverwalk, which now stretches nearly two miles down a river and along a channel leading to Tampa Bay. As he cut the ribbon, Buckhorn said something that must have puzzled some in the audience: “This is a day that we have waited for for decades.”

For decades? Actually, yes. You see, the Tampa Riverwalk was proposed in 1975 by then-Mayor Bill Poe — as a Bicentennial project. The celebration of the American Bicentennial was in 1976. The Riverwalk has, well, taken longer than expected.

By all accounts, the Riverwalk is spectacular. It loops under a bridge and over the Hillsborough River, giving strollers the sensation of walking on water. It ties together several parks and museums, a performing-arts center and the city’s convention center. It offers downtown Tampa a gathering place it has long needed, and it has already sparked development of new restaurants and nightclubs.

But why did it take 40 years to complete? The simple answer is that it was more or less forgotten for 30 years before another mayor, Pam Iorio, revived it and drove it to completion.

But the more interesting story is this this is how many great civic projects proceed, in fits and starts. That is, they are launched with a bang, only to lose momentum and fall into a deep sleep until a new leader comes along and figures out how to revive them. It’s a little like Prince Charming. But instead of a kiss, the new leader applies strategy, persuasion, persistence … and an occasional kick in the pants.

This is just one of the surprising patterns I’ve found in the last four years from interviewing leaders of successful civic projects. Here’s another: The leaders learn almost exclusively on the job.

This is puzzling considering how important these projects are. Civic projects are a basic unit of progress and, really, the only way cities make purposeful changes. Think about your own city and its milestones. They might include things like creating a modern transit system, building a new art museum, overhauling the government’s structure, bringing in professional sports … or building a riverwalk. Each of these things was a civic project, with a beginning, middle and end — and clearly defined results.

And, yet, most mayors, city managers, Chamber of Commerce executives, nonprofit directors and foundation leaders come to their jobs knowing little about creating these basic units of progress. Why? Because no one teaches it. There are no graduate schools of civic project management, no seminars, no books, not even a website you can visit. And this, I’ve learned, is why many great projects begin with a long hibernation. Once the idea is formed, nobody knows what to do with it.

Retrieved August 5, 2015 from

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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