Springfield’s resilience: Plan well to keep it

Why is Springfield’s economy proving so resilient?

Several reasons come to mind: You’re a manageably sized regional hub. You’ve got a university and important hospital assets. And you stand at the brink of an enormously attractive natural area — the Ozarks.

More and more in today’s footloose economy, jobs and people flock to livable places with affordable housing, vibrant downtowns, cultural amenities and lots of close-by outdoor recreation.

And Springfield’s got all that. Well, OK: Downtown hardly buzzes with “24-7” meeting and living as yet. But the university keeps students around, and meanwhile, nearby Branson remains one of the nation’s foremost “drive-to” cultural attractions. Likewise, the beautiful “lake country” draws visitors and second-home buyers from all over the Midwest. In this case natural beauty really is natural capital: The famous Ozarks ambience continues to support a $1-billion-a-year tourist sector to cushion the blows of any national economic downturn.

No wonder the region paced the state’s growth in the 1990s and now holds on better in bad times. Greater Springfield has service jobs, rolling hills, lakes, Andy Williams, retirees and their pensions, and reasonably priced new subdivisions. What’s not to like?

But here’s the harder question: Can Springfield stay attractive? Can it stay resilient? The worry is that signs of strain have now appeared after a decade of fast growth.

Many of these strains my colleagues and I detailed in a recent Brookings Institution report I co-authored, titled “Growth in the Heartland: Challenges and Opportunities for Missouri.”

Springfield, we demonstrated, sprawled in the 1990s. Yes, the city proper grew by 8 percent. But mostly population moved ever outward during the decade, and that, we said, has brought problems.

Thousands of people flocked to smaller outlying towns like Willard, Strafford, Republic, Clever, Nixa and Ozark, which hit “hypergrowth” in the 1990s and struggled to keep up. Christian and Webster counties grew unsustainably by 66 and 31 percent, respectively. And even more disturbing some 28,000 people settled in unincorporated fringe areas ill-equipped to accommodate them with modern sewers and good services.

The result: Septic and fertilizer seepage from scattered new homes exacerbates the water-quality problems that have fouled Lake Taneycomo and Table Rock Lake. Taxes are increasing as local governments strain to provide the necessary roads, services or sewer lines in places that never needed them. And with more sprawl coming, more traffic and more mini-malls could cost the region its reputation as the heartland of rural America — quaint, scenic and friendly. The bottom line: Highly dispersed, low-density development may well be undermining the durability of its growth.

In that sense, the real test of Springfield’s resilience lies ahead and turns on its ability to manage its growth to make it sustainable. What is more, the best way for Springfield to continue to grow in high-quality ways would seem to be to continue to set the standard for land-use and environmental reform in Missouri — a state that has lagged on promoting sensible land use and planning.

As a state, after all, Missouri needs to update its badly outmoded planning statutes to provide its regions more tools to manage change.

It needs to promote regional solutions among its many localities. And it needs to better align its transportation and infrastructure investment policies with the principles of sound land use and sensible planning.

In this regard, what the state does — or doesn’t do — to manage growth matters for Springfield because, ultimately, it is the state that sets the rules for what type of growth occurs all over. By remaining virtually laissez-faire on growth and development topics, the state of Missouri may well be undercutting its future competitiveness.

Given that, Springfield should take seriously the fact that with its strong growth, fresh voice and signature environmental assets, it is well positioned to lead the state in promoting reform.

So Springfield should step forward on these issues — as the state’s new economic driver, and as its most progressive region.

Already southwest Missouri business leaders have come together to protect the lakes. Now the region should show the way in other ways, by hammering out a regional system for managing fast growth; rationalizing local government competition; and insisting on state action to allow all regions to make headway.

For that is the way for the Springfield region to prosper: To help itself, it must help nudge the entire state along. Only in that fashion will a distinctive region maintain its distinctive vitality.