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Opinion: How to strengthen Springfield's selling points

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What are we known for?

Whether advertising a business or a city, to have the best chance of success you’ve got to be able to easily tell customers what you are selling. Looking at Springfield today, we have made progress improving downtown, connecting more greenway trails, winning the grant for redeveloping Grant Avenue and welcoming Johnny Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium, but when attracting tourists do we know what we’re selling?

Cities are defined by landmarks, skylines, integration of nature, museums, festivals and sports. The more of these a city has, the more of a tourist draw. The same things we like to visit in cities like Bentonville, Arkansas, Kansas City or St. Louis are needed here in Springfield to attract tourist dollars from outside of the Ozarks. Here are suggestions for how we could have stronger selling points.

1. Creating landmarks. St. Louis has the Gateway Arch, Milwaukee has a signature Calatrava-designed museum, Chicago has the mirrored Cloud Gate, aka the bean. These landmarks are a must-see item when visiting those cities. Springfield may have potential with our yellow “French fries” sculpture in front of the art museum. Imagine if variations of those stacked beams were placed at intersections of the greenway trails and our streets. We would have a unique Springfield tourist activity – see all of the French fries by car or by bike – and each neighborhood could vote on what color to paint theirs.

2. Defining the downtown skyline. New York City is known for its stair-stepped skyscrapers that allow more light to reach the sidewalks for pedestrians. This code gave rise to the concept of purchasing air rights, so a building could build taller than otherwise permitted. Springfield fortunately has plenty of natural light downtown so our opportunity to define our skyline may come by referencing our own history as a railroad town. Tourists love to learn about the history of a city. Imagine if we established a design standard of red brick, large iron-framed windows, stone or concrete accents, and covered sidewalks. It could form a unified visual identity downtown that many cities lack because they are an unplanned collection of styles.

3. Integrating nature. San Antonio capitalized on the river that meanders through its city center and developed the attractive river walk. We’re already pretty lush with trees, but there’s an opportunity for Springfield to include standards for landscaping intersections and commercial corridors. One day, we could even bury the electric lines.

4. Funding our museum. Every major city has a destination museum. We are fortunate to have the Springfield Art Museum. It has been pushing the creative envelope of what has traditionally exhibited in town but faces stiff competition from powerhouse institutions like Bentonville’s Crystal Bridges, Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins and The Saint Louis Art Museum. The Springfield Art Museum needs more public and private support to build its master plan that would transform our museum making it on par with the other exceptional museums in our region.

5. Promoting festivals. The right festival can grow a city’s reputation and fill its hotels. Springfield’s Birthplace of Route 66 Festival counted 65,000 attendees last August. Imagine if we had another festival in the spring to retell the story of Springfield and north Springfield merging. It could be culturally symbolic to unite our city and preserve our history. Boonville could close to traffic so residents can walk, rollerblade, skate or bike the 1.5 miles between Commercial Street and Park Central Square.

6. Watching sports. Kansas City Chiefs football games drew 580,000 visitors in 2019, but major sports teams are expensive to host, and as we know from the St. Louis Rams, there’s no guarantee they’ll stay. Our best opportunities are in growing attendance for our existing teams – the Springfield Cardinals, Missouri State University Bears, Springfield Lasers Tennis and Springfield Rugby Football Club.

Cities are defined by landmarks, skylines, integration of nature, museums, festivals and sports. We have many of these foundational blocks but haven’t yet realized their full potential. Consider these opinions as kindling for imagining your own vision for Springfield.

We are a diamond in the rough. And with continued polishing from both the public and private sectors, we’ll know exactly what Springfield has to offer.

Marcus Aton is the owner of Aton Marketing LLC. He can be reached at marcus@aton.marketing.

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