Gainesville’s choice

There must be a bureaucratic graveyard somewhere in which are entombed the bones of all the studies, reports and plans that were never implemented.

But make no mistake. Charlie Lane, UF’s CEO, is as serious as a heart attack about breathing life, form and function into the strategic master plan he’s been nurturing for nearly four years.

It’s not good enough that UF has been ranked the 7th best public university in America by U.S. News and World Report. They intend to break into the top five.

And to get there, UF will spend nearly $1.5 billion over the next several years for new buildings and initiatives – many of which will have far reaching impacts both on and off campus.

Like turning the northeast quadrant of campus into an “Academic Walk” zone in which automobiles may not venture. That means parking and driving in and around campus won’t get any easier, even as the 2,000 acre campus sprouts more buildings and more activity.

The good news is that UF’s strategic plan is intended to foster future growth and economic prosperity into Gainesville proper rather than outward toward the suburbs.

“When I-75 came through it changed the dynamics of Gainesville dramatically,” Lane said at a breakfast gathering on Wednesday. “A lot of economic development flowed toward the interstate and continues to flow there.” The master plan, he said, will try to direct that flow inward.

All of which raises a crucial question for city commissioners:

Wither the Great American City?

The phrase has emerged as shorthand to describe the sort of dynamic town-gown partnership necessary to ensure that the changes UF envisions will be beneficial, not detrimental, to its host community. If Gainesville is not successful – at fostering strong healthy neighborhoods, a bustling economy and a climate that encourages collaboration and innovation – then neither will UF succeed.

We haven’t heard much talk about all this of late. Really, not since former City Manager Anthony Lyons was forced to resign because he was making life uncomfortable for city employees.

You can fault Lyons for his people skills, but his commitment to the town-gown partnership matched Lane’s own determination to master plan a better future for UF. Lyon’s single-minded focus on changing the culture of city government likely cost him his job.

I only bring this up because the city commission still hasn’t replaced him. An initial field of 55 applicants has been narrowed to five. But in talking to some commissioners I haven’t detected a lot of enthusiasm for any of the finalists.

I would argue that this city manager hire may be the most crucial Gainesville has ever undertaken. We have had our share of caretaker managers whose longevity has depended on keeping commissioners and city workers happy. But what Gainesville needs now is a change agent. Someone who grasps the importance of this still nascent town-gown partnership to Gainesville’s future. Someone who has both the savvy, and the courage, to keep Gainesville’s own strategic blueprint (yes, there is one) out of the bureaucrat’s graveyard.

The folks in Tigert Hall pretty much ignored City Hall before Charlie Lane convinced them that what happens downtown matters as much as what happens on campus. UF could easily slip back into “splendid isolation” mode if it detects waffling on the city’s part.

The next city manager needs to be strategic, visionary and committed to making the New American City a reality.

Even if that means making people in City Hall a little uncomfortable.

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at

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