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MossColumn: What happens when leaders lead

Downtown Hendersonville narrowed Main Street from four to two lanes and installed the serpentine pattern to create the "Downtown Shopping Park" in 1976-77. [PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE BAKER-BARBER COLLECTION; COMMUNITY FOUNDATION OF HENDERSON COUNTY; HENDERSO Downtown Hendersonville narrowed Main Street from four to two lanes and installed the serpentine pattern to create the "Downtown Shopping Park" in 1976-77. [PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE BAKER-BARBER COLLECTION; COMMUNITY FOUNDATION OF HENDERSON COUNTY; HENDERSO

In the Sept. 18 and 25 issues of the Lightning, we told in words and pictures the story of downtown revitalization in Hendersonville.

Our two-part report, the Serpentine Solution, explained how Grand Junction, Colorado, pioneered a Main Street makeover based on narrowing and zig-zagging the street, widening sidewalks, planting trees, adding raised flower beds, adding public art and encouraging restoration and preservation of historic façades. The parallels between Grand Junction and Hendersonville were many.

When Grand Junction leaders hatched the idea in 1962, the flight of shoppers to suburbs was beginning, traffic on Main had become a problem and big rainstorms flooded the street. Even so, downtown did not seem distressed.
“Our people pride themselves on having recognized the symptom of stagnation that comes from leaving well enough alone,” city leaders wrote when they applied to be named an All America City in 1962. An “unusual amount of strength, togetherness and foresight” led to the completion of the project and made Grand Junction “a city not satisfied with ‘marking time’ but dedicated to ‘making history.’”
In fact, Grand Junction leaders could not have known that their brand-new serpentine solution would make as much history as it did. The serpentine success resonated across America and was copied by many cities. As we showed in side-by-side photos, Hendersonville from some angles looks almost identical.

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I had been wanting to visit Grand Junction ever since I learned years ago that it was the model for our downtown revitalization in the mid ’70s. So when we took a family vacation to Winter Park, a popular ski resort outside Denver, I grabbed the opportunity to piggyback a reporting trip to the opposite corner of the state. My busman’s holiday took me across the Rocky Mountains to a land of mesas in the high desert. I checked into a Hampton Inn, one of four brand-name hotels in downtown Grand Junction. Interesting, I thought, we’re trying to get our first hotel.
Grand Junction’s public works director, Trent Prall, had taken an interest in my reporting trip when I made advance calls. He and downtown development director Brandon Stam guided me around town, explained the origins of the revitalization and showed me the many more recent improvements the city had completed. One reason Trent knew a lot about the 1962 project was that Grand Junction had worked hard to preserve and honor that history. In 2012, the city had a 50th anniversary celebration of the revitalization, dubbed “Operation Foresight,” that produced a 91-page booklet documenting the project and the people that made it happen. Grand Junction folks love their downtown now and they know how it happened. We love our downtown here, too, but I find most people don’t know its history. In the Serpentine Solution, we told the who, what, where, when and why. But that left one more essential standard of reporting: how. In recent years I’ve covered in detail our community’s recent history of saying no to big change. How in the world, I wondered, did we ever manage to push through so dramatic a change in the business center of the whole community? How did it get done, I wondered, and who did it?

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“By 1974 the matter of Hendersonville’s downtown had become urgent,” Kermit Edney, the WHKP radio broadcaster, wrote in Kermit Edney Remembers: Where Fitz Left Off. In a 1974 countywide revaluation, property values had spiked by 40-50% outside the city center and dropped by 20% downtown, Edney said in his book. If Main Street was not at a crisis point, Edney and Jody Barber recognized, as the Grand Junction leaders had, that “leaving well enough alone” would only lead to economic stagnation.
Another similarity in the two successful serpentine efforts 13 years apart was the willingness of downtown property owners to put skin in the game. In both cities, landowners and shopkeepers agreed to pay special property taxes to fund the work.
“The people that were motivated to do this were the property owners directly impacted by it,” Bill Lapsley, then a city engineer involved in the project and now a county commissioner, said in our story. “The people supporting it weren’t the people from Etowah or Dana. They were willing to tax themselves, so they were paying for it with their own money.”
Although Edney assured the City Commission that downtown merchants supported the project, that support waned as construction crews began tearing up asphalt and replacing parking spaces with planters and sidewalk bulb-outs. From city minutes, it was clear that opposition was growing in the spring of 1976. Unlike today, it was not enough to tip the scales. Opponents did not have the tools then that they have today to whip up instant campaigns via social media, to construct a counter-narrative of scary consequences and to tap into a deep well of mistrust of government to cast something new as a threat to our way of life.
Kermit Edney and Jody Barber and Mary Barber and others held their ground and pushed on. As a result, these 43 years later, we have the downtown Hendersonville we have today, the envy of many a small town across the state. Historic Downtown is comfortable, it’s safe, it’s inviting, it’s lively. It still has a parking problem, Hallelujah! What a good problem to have.
I think our elected officials, our business leaders and civic activists devoted to the long-term betterment of our town need to look no further than the Serpentine Solution to see what’s possible. If we agree on a good plan, unite disparate factions behind it and defend it transparently and aggressively, we can lead change even when even when the noise grows louder.