The picturesque flagship campus of the University of Missouri is the crown jewel of downtown Columbia. But farther out, near the interstate, residents will be the first to admit that vacant buildings and open lots give passers-by a somewhat unflattering impression of the city.
“Let’s put it this way,” said Carrie Gartner, executive director of the Business Loop Community Improvement District, or CID. “Three of the five Columbia exits off Interstate 70 exit onto the business loop, and we are not putting our best foot forward.”
But better days are ahead for the mile-and-a-half commercial artery, known as Business Loop 70. Just as summer is getting started, a Community Pop Up Park has opened on loop-front land owned by Boone Electric Cooperative.
“One of the things that was severely lacking was a place where people could gather and get together,” said Ryan Euliss, the co-op’s CFO and treasurer of the CID. “People had forgotten about the area, so we’re trying to bring attention back to the original old corridor of Columbia and really create an area that supports the community but that also provides economic activity for the community surrounding it.”
Organizers dramatically transformed the vacant lot, which the CID leases from the co-op. “We put down fresh asphalt, and [Gartner] brought in 100 volunteers from a local group, Caring for Columbia, to put the whole thing together,” said Euliss.
The public space now has a warm and upbeat vibe intended to appeal to visitors of all ages. Picnic tables, oversized board games and plants dot the 50-by-70-foot space. Food trucks are welcome. A shipping container converts into a stage for local bands.
The new park is the kickoff for the CID’s five-year “corridor plan” to transform the loop into an attractive, small-scale space for entrepreneurs and artists. Businesses, including the co-op, formed the CID several years ago after agreeing to tax themselves.
“The Community Pop Up Park isn’t just a highly visible way to show Columbia that we’re serious about improving the street,” said Gartner. “It’s our way of creating a sense of community among the people who would like to see a more vibrant business loop. The more people we have enjoying the street, the better chance we have of making some real changes.”
Gartner credits the co-op, which helped create the CID with other local businesses several years ago, for being “an amazing supporter.”
“Not only did they support the park,” she said. “They really understand the larger picture of what we are trying to accomplish.”
Euliss said co-op officials hope their city revitalization work helps raise Boone Electric’s profile among younger members.
“This is a really big push into that area, where we’re making connections to a lot of members that don’t necessarily have a long-standing family connection to the history of rural electric cooperatives,” he said.
“These are young families and people who see the park and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on here? Who’s doing this? What’s this about?’ It’s an open space for everyone.”
Listen to NRECA’s recent podcast episode on rural economic development:
Victoria A. Rocha is a staff writer at NRECA.