Dean Barber

This Old Park

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on December 13, 2015 at 7:47 am

I live across the street from a large park. It’s a scenic and rather active place, and I enjoy living near it.

When weather permits, I can sit on my front porch, drink coffee in the morning, and watch people run or walk by on the 2.2 mile circular paved trail. Or when I am feeling particularly guilty or industrious, I can get off my duff and onto the trail, seeing ducks, geese and squirrels along the way.

Here in the United States, parks come in many shapes, sizes and uses. The smallest may offer some shade and a few benches for sitting, while some of our largest parks can be thousands of square miles inhabited by wild animals that could, if so inclined, eat you.

Most of the time, you know a park when you see it. It is a set aside tract of land, often with distinct boundaries, designed for a specific purpose. It could be for recreation or the protection and preservation of cultural or natural resources.

Also, a park can be designated and designed for commerce. In the course of doing my job as a consultant to industry and economic development organizations, I frequently visit business and industrial parks all over the country.

Some I Like, Some I Don’t

Some so-called industrial or business parks that I have seen are little more than a swath of vacant, raw land. I learned that it is a park only by virtue of the fact that an economic developer told me so or that there was a sign present.

Forget that there may be little or no infrastructure evident — no roads, no water, sewer and gas lines, but those things will come, I am told, if I only deliver the right company or project. Not exactly a ready-to-go site.

Frankly, if doesn’t look or smell like an industrial/business park, I don’t think of it as such.

On the other hand, I have been in some business and industrial parks that are quite impressive. They are purposely designed and engineered to harbor and meet the needs of certain types of companies doing certain types of things.

And they, too, may have trees, sidewalks, curbs and gutters and walking trails, all  designed to make the place more habitable. As such, these business-specific parks usually have covenants in place so that something out of place or some activity does not happen or arise that is incompatible with that of its neighbors.

Covenants are important because many companies host visitors and/or customers and these companies want to uphold a certain image by being in upscale or at least understandable surroundings.

It is for that reason alone that a business or industrial park is often chosen by a company, often at a greater cost. If the park is designed and maintained well, it provides not just the required infrastructure needed, but also a level of protection.

In short, a company will know or can expect to know what the neighborhood will look like for the foreseeable future. And there is a value to that.

The last thing a company wants is to build onto a site or move into a new facility and then another company locates nearby with an operation that is totally foreign to and detracts from the immediate surroundings.

In that respect, it is not that much different than shopping for a home in a residential subdivision. You are looking not just at the house that is being sold or built, but you are also considering the neighborhood and making a determination if you like the physical environment.

What is This?

Last week, at the bequest of a client, I took a long and hard look at an aged industrial “park” in an urban environment. I toured the area and spoke with more than a few companies that had operations in it.

My first impression is that it didn’t look or feel like a park at all, but rather an industrial district or neighborhood within the city.

(For that reason, I will subsequently put quotation marks around the word “park” when I am referring to this tract of land.)

The origin of this particular “park” dates back to the late 1950s, but  it really came onto its own in the 1970s and 1980s when companies started operations there.

There is signage in place, rather dated looking, telling you that this is a “park.” The signs are located on major heavily-traveled thoroughfares which flank the “park.” A low-income residential neighborhood directly adjoins one side of the property.

What’s more, if there were covenants (which apparently cannot be found), they have been largely ignored for a long time, because it is clear that this old “park” has become a place where virtually anything goes, much to the detriment of it today.

I noticed immediately that outside storage, which is not permitted in many industrial parks, was not just relegated in the back of the buildings, which is sometimes allowed, but  was happening in the front of the buildings facing the roads.

Even with things unrelated to the business were sitting in front of many buildings, the “park” a very junky look.

It Gets Worse

I also saw chain link fences on the ground. Empty trailers/mobile homes which should have never been there and lots overgrown with vegetation. It didn’t help that most of the buildings had an all metal skin with no outside masonry. Some had been empty for years should have been torn down.

Frankly, I don’t think this “park” was ever truly designed as a cohesive park or looked like one from day one, even if it did have a few exceptional buildings in it.

And despite the fact that “technology” is in its name, this old “park” has no fiber optics, meaning that transferring large amounts of data via the internet, while possible, takes an inordinate amount of time, according to occupants.

And if that is not enough, the “park” is about 30 miles from the nearest interstate, which means that it is competing against much newer parks in the region with far better transportation infrastructure for moving and shipping product.

So other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

Lost Cause?

Now you might think, based on the description that I gave you, that this old and largely misused and abused and poorly designed “park”, where there is a sizable amount of vacant space under roof for lease (and way too many for lease signs), is a lost cause.

And it just might be. But it doesn’t have to be that way if the business community residing in the “park” takes a leadership role making need changes. If that happens, I believe the “park” can have a second life. It might even be reinvented and transformed into a real park.

The good news is that there are some real quality, blue-chip companies that have substantial operations there. I believe, based on my conversations with them, that they want to see the appearance of the place substantially improve.

That would mean some redesign as well as a new set of enacted covenants by which all the residing businesses within the park will have to live by.

Collaboration is Key

I happen to believe that when business and government comes together to solve problems, great things can happen. I saw plenty of evidence of that recently in Miami, where public-private partnership have changed the landscape of the downtown.

If  something akin to a home-owners association, a business resident association, is formed, working in tandem with the city, then peer pressure can come to bear on those businesses who would prefer to do nothing.

Mind you, this old “park” will never be a new park. It always be old and it will always be 30 miles from the interstate. That cannot be changed. As such, it will not be the right location for certain kind of companies. That much has to be accepted.

But like an old car, this old “park” can be restored, rejuvenated, and even made desirable, if a public-private partnership can be formulated with the necessary  political will to make change happen.

No doubt, some will squeal. Some will shout. Some might even file lawsuits and leave. (Actually, you probably want the non-compatible, the non-compliant to go.)

Which means that a political fight could very well happen, pitting those who are content to let the “park” further deteriorate against those who believe it can be saved and made a more attractive place. But, again, it will take the business community and the city coming together as true partners to make it happen.

We Can Do This

The fact is that we can change the appearances of places. We can make the slumlords clean up their properties, and we can, to a degree, pick and choose what kind of businesses go where.

I have seen neighborhoods reborn for the better all over this country where good planning and a bit of political courage comes to bear. This can work.

It’s not an accident that certain businesses are now returning to downtown cores that had been previously deteriorating but are now magnets for investment. Young entrepreneurs who draw a millennial workforce are often leading the way and showing an older generation what can be done.

How cool is it to be able to bicycle to work? Or to be able to walk from work to a choice of nearby restaurants. It’s happening in more and more places, only because we are changing and transforming places for the better.

Parks, neighborhoods, districts, places where people congregate to work and play are changing, because our workforce is changing and younger people especially are looking for and expecting certain perks to come with a job.

For them, it’s not all about the money, but balancing work with life.

Smart companies, 21st century companies, understand this, as do astute economic developers and local government officials who want to make their places better. They instinctively know that changing the place improves the odds economic growth in the 21st century.

So I believe this old “park” can take on a second life, but only if the business community and local government partner to create and devise solutions to make it more accomodating for a new breed of worker that is coming on the scene.

It won’t be easy and it won’t happen overnight. But as the old saying goes, where there is a will there is a way.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm based in Dallas. He can be reached at dbarber@barberadvisors.com or at 972-767-9518.

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