Annual Bartley Lecture Focuses on Character Towns

By Chelsea Mistretta

Imagine being asked about your hometown. That swell of pride you feel and the smile across your face while you describe growing up there.  Bill Kercher based his book Character Towns: Positioning Small Cities and Towns for the New Economy on that pride in place.

As a part of the Ernest R. Bartley Memorial Lecture Series, Bill Kercher, a City Planning Consultant, with 50 years of experience in urban and regional planning in Florida, spoke about the contents of his book, which highlights the importance of small towns in America.

“Towns that do extraordinary things are usually ordinary towns,” Kercher told the crowd. He continued to explain that the grand prize of a successful town is civic pride and the thriving economy that results.

Civic pride is achieved in many ways. The prime goal of a Character Town, Kercher explained, is to enhance the economy, design and environment of communities by identifying what makes them distinctive and building on these positive elements. Engaging and communicating with residents, including listening and acknowledging their input in the process not only builds trust and civic pride, but also leads to support when change occurs.

Kercher also highlighted other ways to achieve the ideal Character Town.  These include creating interesting activities and places to visit, offering a variety of living options, ensuring a prosperous job market, open, vibrant and productive spaces, and city support for residents. He shared his favorite example – visiting different town-beloved ice cream shops.

But what does it take to create these ordinary, but extraordinary towns?

“Planners have a role to play in creating communities,” Kercher explained. Important buildings such as City Hall, public libraries, community theaters, post offices, and iconic ice cream shops need to be placed in convenient locations and endure over time. A public library located in a more isolated location does not contribute to town character. Main streets need to be vibrant and fun, accommodating multiple uses, revitalizing historic structures, while also incorporating modern infrastructure.

Leadership is the final aspect of a good Character Town. Kercher emphasized “Vision and leadership should not be underestimated but can be undermined.” Town leaders and planners need to have the motivation and drive to plan all these details to ensure the economic, physical and social aspects of the community are balanced and coordinated.

Kercher concluded his lecture noting “Planners are one of the few professions that can deal holistically with our communities.” With good planners and leaders, small towns can thrive with happy residents, successful businesses, beautiful places, and plenty of civic pride.

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