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John Robert Smith, founder of Reconnecting America, will speak at the Memorial Art Gallery on May 10, 2010.Rochester’s dazzling urbanites, development gurus, transit afficionados, preservation honchos, political luminaries, and architectural stewards are all very pleased that the Rochester Regional Community Design Center’s final lecture of the 2009-2010 season brings John Robert Smith to the Memorial Art Gallery on May 10th at 7PM.  This enthuasism will surely spread like wildfire once the community at large understands what a tremendous impact this man has had in the realms of community revitalization and improving housing and mobility choices for citizens in communities with situations similar to Rochester.

The future of this or any community hinges on the following concepts, all of which are likely to be discussed at the speech and reception:

  • Municipal Administration
    Elected mayor of Meridian, Mississippi in 1993 and serving until 2009, Smith can speak to hurdles in dealing with agencies numbering a dozen or more on a single project.
  • Transit-Oriented Development
    His Meridian Union Station restoration effort has driven increased property values, increased city tax receipts, decreased crime, and leveraged over $8 million in private investment in the Depot District immediately adjacent to the station.
  • Reconnecting America
    While also the name of the national non-profit dedicated to promoting transit-oriented development presided over by Smith, Reconnecting America could be used to describe J.R.’s way of life.  Smith has been Chairman of Amtrak’s board of directors, Vice-Chair for Rail Policy of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and Co-Chair of the National Forum on the Future of Passenger Rail.
  • Multi-Modality
    Smith’s Reconnecting America’s Transportation Networks program focuses on linking our separate aviation, rail and intercity bus systems into an integrated network in order to improve economic productivity, enhance consumer choice and value, and improve environmental performance and energy efficiency.

Meridian Union StationTo fully appreciate Smith’s influence, ability, and vision, one must take a closer look at his crown jewel, the Meridian Union Station restoration, a fitting gateway to the city.

The Meridian Terminal Company completed construction of the original station in 1906 at a cost of $250,000.  By 1966, only the east wing of the depot, sans its trademark central tower, remained.  Jumping forward nearly 30 years, under the leadership of Mayor John Robert Smith, Union Station was developed as the catalyst that would spark the re-birth of the Depot District.

The new Meridian Union StationFollowing a series of town meetings, architectural plans were developed and the Union Station tower was reconstructed to house Amtrak, Greyhound, and the Meridian Transit System, with taxi service to the Meridian Regional Airport, and office space for Norfolk Southern Railroad. Meeting rooms on the mezzanine level of the iconic tower reproduction were designed for community activities, the existing east wing was renovated as the home of the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation and an old Railway Express Agency building was converted into a railroad museum.

The project evolved into an undertaking that had a total construction price tag of approximately $6.5 million, including $5.1 million in federal and state contributions, $1.3 million from the city and $431,000 in contributions from Amtrak.  The number of passengers originating from or arriving at the station via Amtrak, Greyhound buses, and Meridian Transit System buses averages 242,360 per year in a city of only about 38,000 (~79,000 in county).

The station has encouraged significant private investment in the Depot District in the form of office space, retail shops, a data processing/computer training center, upper-story apartments on the west side of Front Street, two hotels – the Terminal Hotel and the Union Hotel, the newly renovated Rosenbaum condominiums, two restaurants, and vital records storage buildings.

Beginning with this mental image in a significantly smaller metropolitan area, what are the possibilites for a region such as Rochester/Monroe County in terms of multi-layer intermodal transit solutions?  We sincerely hope you’ll attend Mr. Smith’s lecture with us, Reconnect Rochester, and we’ll find out together.  For more details and ticketing options, please visit the RRCDC’s Reshaping Rochester Lecture Series.

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