Never mind where the mayor goes next. Thanks to some of you, I’d like to hop in the car and head to Chattanooga, Tenn., and Greenville, S.C.

 

Let me backtrack. In the wake of Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry going to Kansas City, St. Louis and Baltimore to check out downtown development projects, I threw out a question last week: What city would you like the mayor to see?

I knew that some of you would say you don’t want him traveling anywhere else on Shad Khan’s jet — or using taxpayer dollars for such a trip in the future.

So for the sake of this exercise, I said that we’re setting aside discussions about cost or conflict, and imagining that the mayor is being transported by some magical method. Star Trek beam, Bewitched nose-twitch, Jeannie blink. (Yes, I grew up in a certain age.)

What city would you like him to see?

Some of you suggested large, waterfront cities: Boston, Chicago, New York, Seattle, San Francisco.

Some of you suggested San Antonio and its River Walk. Others pointed to San Diego — another Navy town, on the water.

In addition to several other ‘villes — Asheville, Knoxville, Nashville — you were all over the map: Austin, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Denver, Pittsburgh, Durham, Cincinnati, Memphis, Charlotte, Charleston, Raleigh and more.

You have the mayor traveling from coast to coast — Portland to Portland, Oregon to Maine — and beyond. Toronto, London, Stockholm, Dublin. Amy Rankin suggested Paris and made me look up the word “arrondissement” (the Parisian version of city council districts).

“Paris is a city that was built around great parks but every arrondissement has small pocket parks,” she said.

Some of you stayed much closer to home with Florida cities: St. Petersburg, Tampa, Fort Myers, DeLand.

I’d echo many of these suggestions, recalling places I’ve visited or lived. But I ended up being most intrigued by a couple of places that I’ve never visited, places that actually are smaller than Jacksonville: Chattanooga, Tenn., and Greenville, S.C.

Jacksonville is a mix of big city and small town. Both sides of that equation have pluses and minuses, but I think that mix is what a lot of like about living here. When we think of growth, we tend to look to larger cities. But maybe we should be checking out Chattanooga and Greenville.

Beth Mixson grew up in Tennessee. She recalls graduating from college 35 years ago and going to work in Nashville, finding the area next to the Tennessee River full of pawn shops, strip joints and boarded-up buildings. She returned last year and her jaw dropped when she saw streets packed with people, music playing, a pedestrian bridge crossing the river.

She says a similar transformation has happened in the Chattanooga she visited as a child — its once blighted riverfront now anchored by an aquarium and linked by a 2,376-foot pedestrian bridge.

“Not only do both cities attract locals to enjoy these areas, they also have become tourist destinations,” Mixson said. “Most importantly, Tennessee college graduates are seeing these cities as alluring places to live, enjoy life and eventually raise their families instead of moving out of state. “

About 200 miles east of Chattanooga, on the other side of the Nantahala National Forest, is Greenville. While some of you suggested continuing another 100 miles to the east to Charlotte, a surprising number of you circled Greenville as the place to stop.

“What Greenville did with its riverfront is nothing short of spectacular,” Barre Barrett of Jacksonville Beach said.

Doug Coleman shared a video of Greenville Mayor Knox White giving a TEDxGreenville talk: “Discovering Your City’s Personality.”

White recalled that 20 years ago some urban planners offered this assessment of downtown Greenville: It does not have a bad personality or image. It just does not have any image.

Sound familiar?

White explains that Greenville did several things right away. It gave new attention to historic preservation. It filled Main Street with public art. Not just art for art’s sake. Art that told the story of the city. It made downtown more walkable. And, yes, it added mixed-use development.

But, he said, the biggest single act involved uncovering the “greatest expression of the city’s personality” — a waterfall.

The waterfall was the birthplace of Greenville, a spot where people had gathered for centuries. But in 1960, it was covered by a bridge. When a proposal was floated about 15 years ago to tear down the roadway and spend $13 million on a park, it was met with quite a bit of skepticism and resistance.

But eventually, the plan was approved. And when that park opened in 2004, a pedestrian suspension bridge over the river, people came in droves. And kept coming. Leading to new challenges today — how to continue to grow wisely.

“What can other cities learn from Greenville’s experience in revitalizing their downtowns?” the Greenville mayor said in his talk. “I would say, first of all, the fundamentals of mixed-use are still important — getting the office, the retail, the residential in the right balance, is absolutely critical.”

That alone, he said, isn’t enough. You have to be attentive to your city’s personality. You have to think about what you have that no one else does — and celebrate that.

We have a lot to celebrate in Jacksonville, starting with our own rich history and a magnificent river winding through downtown, spanned by a series of bridges (including a beautiful blue one that a former mayor suggested altering, devoting part of it to pedestrians).

We also have one slogan, unveiled nearly 50 years ago with consolidation, that makes the conclusion to the Greenville mayor’s talk seem like it was made for Jacksonville.

“Above all,” he said, “don’t be afraid to be bold.”

mark.woods@jacksonville.com,

(904) 359-4212