In a recent social media exchange, a former resident who fled to St. Charles accused me of being “all criticism, no suggestions.” Of course, I disagreed. After repeatedly insulting my intellect, he challenged me to produce a ten point plan for improving Ferguson. So here it is. Some of the points are general, while others are very specific. They are in no particular order. But they are all important. I might not have thought of everything, but I think this is a great platform for moving our city forward. On a technical note, since WordPress doesn’t allow multi-character drop caps (that’s the giant number at the beginning of each paragraph), I’ve numbered them 0 through 9. I hope you enjoy reading and pondering them as much as I enjoyed putting them together.
Restore public safety. For nearly a decade, our police department has languished at the hands of a series of failed leaders. The consent decree has been a convenient target for those who were not interested in looking in the mirror. But the fact is, the lawless atmosphere under which residents live today was not forced by the consent decree, it was the product of repeated, systemic failure. There is a steady stream of good residents heading for the exits because they don’t feel safe. That has to change immediately, and change starts at the top.
Get serious about commercial development. For a time, downtown Ferguson was on a roll. A vacant liquor store became Ferguson Brewing Company, a regional attraction. New lofts were built across the street, and two other long neglected buildings were transformed into lofts with ground floor retail. Since then, our central business district has ground to a halt. The Coffee House has sat vacant for more than three years. The Ferguson Optical building and its neighbor have been vacant for years, and most of the storefronts south of Victorian Plaza are empty or underutilized. The hardware store also sits empty, after the city dropped the ball when a business sought to locate there. Local property owners have recounted spectacles at the hands of city employees, some of which have occurred in public at council meetings. Commercial development is an uphill battle in the best of circumstances. Ferguson has made things worse.
Reconfigure Florissant Road. The recent resurfacing of Florissant Road presented the city with a no cost opportunity to reconfigure the roadway as a central business district instead of a high traffic arterial. Because the city grants veto power to the fire chief, who advocates for no considerations but those of his department, that opportunity was missed. Every successful downtown business in our region – the Delmar Loop, Kirkwood, South Grand, St. Charles Main Street – has a single traffic lane in each direction, with on street parking. Configuring Florissant Road in this fashion is the first step to a successful downtown Ferguson.
Get somebody in the Whistlestop. It’s hard to claim that the city takes economic development seriously when its own building sits empty year after year. We need a popular business, run by an entrepreneur with a good track record and a great idea, to generate some buzz in our downtown area. To draw the best prospects, make it a contest – a year of free rent to the business which makes the best case for the Whistlestop. Hint: It’s probably not going to be ice cream.
Spiff up the parks. From Forestwood to the small neighborhood parks, our park system is an important part of the quality of life in our city. Personnel problems and inconsiderate users have led to substantial deterioration. We need to fix that now. The city is getting a good start, actively seeking to hire two full time park employees. Let’s leverage our community’s love for the parks by creating a Volunteers in Parks program. For an added incentive, offer free community center or pool membership to those who log a large number of hours in service.
Repair the streets. From bone shaking potholes to substantial sections of exposed concrete at the edges of the asphalt, our streets suffered from years of neglect under our recently departed public works director. As we look to hire a new director, we must be sure that he has the knowledge and experience necessary to maintain the streets properly. Familiarity with the technical issues of street maintenance, as well as the various grant opportunities which our city has missed out on for years, are both vital.
Set a standard of transparency. Our city has an archaic system of information management, which makes no effort at transparency. Putting all the city’s financial details, including the checkbook and invoices, would be a great start. Improved policies and procedures for complying with the Sunshine Law are vital. And most important of all, a shift in attitude among certain city employees who view themselves as gatekeepers is long overdue. The public’s business should be accessible to the public, period.
Put elected officials in their lane. Every elected official has his priorities, but our charter makes it clear that they are not permitted to interact with city staff. Our charter makes it crystal clear: “The council and its members shall deal with all city officers and employees who are subject to the direction and supervision of the manager solely through the manager. Neither the council nor its members shall give orders, directions, or instructions to any such officer or employee, either publicly or privately.” This provision is violated constantly by council members, who insist on being sand in the gears of city government. And while we’re at it, let’s respect the time and authority of the city manager. While he answers to the council, that doesn’t give members license to be unreasonable in their demands or demeaning in their attitude.
Push forward on vacant and problem properties. Promote the adjacent lot program. Explore planting vacant lots with helpful indigenous plants and just mowing the edges. Move swiftly against dangerous properties, rather than waiting until 6 years of taxes are unpaid. Implement a rapid strike force to abate dumping on vacant properties. Demand action from the worst violators in both the downtown and West Florissant business districts. Continue to pursue nuisance remedies for businesses which are havens for criminal activity.
Put on a happy face. Ferguson has slowly drifted from being “The Kirkwood of North County” to a troubled place whose most able citizens are heading for the exit. But the full picture is far better than its detractors paint it. In the past decade, the downtown business district has been transformed, with millions of dollars invested in high quality mixed use buildings which are almost fully occupied. The housing stock is booming, with a successful property restoration program driving the rehab of vacant homes, and a steady stream of improvements by existing homeowners. We have much to be proud of in Ferguson, and with a handful of changes, we can restore the shine to our city, the jewel of North County.