CityWorks (X)po 2017 – Key Lessons & Highlights

By Keila Rodriguez, RMA Business Attraction & Marketing Manager

On April 6, 2017, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the City of Winter Haven, Florida with RMA Business Attraction & Marketing Director Sharon McCormick, who was invited as a Guest Speaker at the CityWorks (X)po 2017.  Sharon gave a presentation about how the arts drive economic and community development to cities, and specifically how the City of Pompano Beach, Florida is actively pursuing creativity and the arts as main elements to revitalize its Downtown.

This type of “idea-exchange” conference is organized to facilitate knowledge regarding current practices, key lessons and strategic plans applied by cities to provide solutions and improve the quality of life of their citizens, and I found it to be a very educational and informational experience.

Usually when we think about development, often the physical comes to mind first (the infrastructure, neighborhoods, buildings, parks and lands that compose a city), and rarely do we think of the arts and culture as drivers for economic growth.  At the present, arts and culture are some of the most important factors of development. The role of art and culture in development should be treated as multi-layered: on one hand as a fundamental value, secondly as a real factor of regional development leading to increase attractiveness for tourists, residents and investors, and additionally, as an active factor of social/human development based on knowledge, tolerance and creativity. Sharon McCormick successfully delivered this message to all the attendees with a remarkable presentation.

Among many of the other amazing speakers invited, I would like to highlight as well the presentations of Rick Baker, former Mayor of St. Petersburg, Florida; and Anthony Lyons, current City Manager of Gainesville, Florida. Their presentations really captured my attention because each one of them allowed me to see how different key persons/teams tackled “common” problems in cities and how they affected, in a meaningful and positive way, the lives of people in their communities.

Former Mayor Rick Baker really has the power to inspire others with his stories. Without a power point or images, he started his presentation in a very relaxed and friendly manner while physically engaging the audience by joining them. Mr. Baker talked about many of the programs implemented during his time as a Mayor focusing on five areas: education; economic development (particularly in Midtown St. Petersburg); public safety; neighborhood associations; and improving the efficiency of city services.

In particular, I really connected with the plan he implemented to improve the level of education, called A+ Housing Program.  He stated that as a Mayor of St. Petersburg, one of the main goals was to have the best schools in America, and in order to do that it was important to have the best teachers, so in an effort to recruit and retain good teachers, the city pioneered a program that provided up to $20,000 of financial assistance to qualified teachers at a St. Petersburg school who were willing to purchase a home in the city.

Another fantastic project introduced by Mr. Baker was “The Play ‘N’ Close to Home” initiative, locating a playground within a half mile of every child in the city. The Mayor overcame legal obstacles to place some of these playgrounds on school property that resulted in a win-win partnership for both parties as the city saved on land costs, and the schools received new state-of-the-art accessible playgrounds ($80,000 each), allowing every child  to have access to a local playground within a short, safe walk from their home.

Mr. Baker is the author of a book “The Seamless City”, where he provides practical advice based on his nine years of experience in City Hall, on how every mayor and city council can make their city dramatically better. It was for sure one of the most impactful presentations I have seen and I will definitely be reading his book.

The next speaker I would like to talk about is the City Manager of Gainesville, Florida, Anthony Lyons, who started his presentation with a very simple question: How do you make your City more competitive? Lyons proceeded to say that “like great companies, great cities need to think about the user experience…for cities, user experience is not at the forefront”, and that when we “think of citizens and users not as customers, but as co-designers of services, the result is a much better experience because it’s based on what the citizen/customer needs rather than what the government needs”. So, instead of looking at what the public sector was doing, Lyons looked at the private sector and what made certain companies stand out, and as he said, “It all boiled down to a focus on user experience”.

The “bureaucracy” in cities can be difficult for the average person to understand. Calling the city or getting around its website can be a frustrating experience as a person tries to figure out some simple information or what department is supposed to assist in solving their need or problem. For this reason the “Department of Doing” was born, a one-stop physical office, for obtaining all the permits needed to open a business or develop real estate, as well as a web platform still under development (24 hrs. chat), becoming a more citizen-responsive government and making Gainesville more competitive in attracting and encouraging businesses as well. Anthony Lyons was selected about a year ago as the City Manager and he’s confident the “complete user-centered” changes happening will make Gainesville one of the best American cities in which to live and work.

In addition to the conference, Sharon and I were able to walk around the beautiful Main Street at Winter Haven for a tour and taste of the City, visiting wonderful places like Arabella’s Ristorante and the Gram Parsons Derry Down (a Florida Heritage Site) where we met talented personalities like guitarist and singer Walter Parks from Jacksonville, Florida and New York City, who performed live.

I would like to thank Anita Strang, executive director of Main Street Winter Haven, for being so hospitable and for such hard work during the conference, as well as all the rest of the staff, partners, sponsors and speakers that made this conference possible. I look forward to applying the key lessons I learned from the amazing speakers in the work that I do with RMA. It was a delightful event and I hope I have the opportunity again to attend the next edition of CityWorks  (X)po.