A journey of a thousand miles might begin with one step, but it is important to know in which direction to step. Asset mapping is one good way to help determine which way your community should begin the journey. It is an especially good tool for discovering things that might have been overlooked as assets. Hernando is a good case in point because it has used asset mapping to become one of the most desirable places to live in the country.
An asset is simply a useful or desirable thing of value. It can be an individual, a group of individuals, a physical thing or even something intangible, such as the history of the community. Although asset mapping is sometimes incorporated into SWOT Analysis, which is identifying the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that face an organization or community, it is becoming more of a separate and distinct activity. When done properly it can also reveal things that are assets in a community that the community may never have thought of as assets.
Recently this writer had the opportunity to hear Bob Barber, Hernando’s director of city planning, discuss asset mapping and how it had benefitted his city. Barber has served as the director of planning for Hernando since 1996. He has focused planning and development policy on preservation, design, place making and smart growth principles. He is also a consultant in private practice, advising small towns throughout Mississippi on planning and development matters. He is past president of the Mississippi Chapter of the American Planning Association, chairman of the Chapter Presidents Council for the American Planning Association, and national board advisor of APA. He has been a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners since 1990. He is an executive committee member of the Memphis District Council of the Urban Land Institute. Those credentials and his experience in Hernando make him an in-demand presenter on matters of city planning. To paraphrase an old television commercial line, “When Bob Barber talks about city planning, people listen.”
Barber said that when he first visited Hernando he fell in love with the courthouse square. Back then the population of the city was approximately 3,200. To some, a small town did not need a city planner. But forward-thinking city leaders could see that the area was in the growth path of the Memphis metropolitan area. Today, Hernando is a city of 14,090 residents. It is located in DeSoto County, which is the county adjacent to the south of Memphis. Hernando grew by 106.8 percent during the 2000 – 2010 period and DeSoto County increased its population by 50.4 percent. The State of Mississippi grew by 4.3 percent during the same period.
One of Barber’s first things to do was bring in an outside expert to evaluate the community and give a report of his findings. The report was not flattering. Hernando was perceived as a below average town that did not value its assets. That has changed dramatically during the past 15 years. In 2011 it was named by Money Magazine as number 79 on the magazine’s list of “100 Best Places to Live.” Barber’s point is that capitalizing on assets is not something that is done overnight. It is a long-term process.
Barber defines asset mapping as, “a place-based feature that when appropriately guided or acted upon increases the value of a community.” Assets attract, and liabilities repel, he says. So if a community wants to attract, it should identify and develop its assets.
Sometimes it pays to be creative and do a bit of unconventional thinking when identifying assets. Barber says that anything in a community that creates memories, especially positive memories, is an asset. “Memory and meaning are vitally important, so monument the memories,” he said.
For example, one of Hernando’s memories is its water tower, an 87-year old structure that is believed to be the first public water supply source in DeSoto County. It has many positive memories for residents of the area. The water tower was featured on the cover of “Hernando,” an album released in 2008 by the North Mississippi Allstars, a Southern rock/blues jam band from Hernando that was formed in 1996. A favorable review in the New York Times in 2001 brought national attention to the band. By 2005 the North Mississippi Allstars had released four studio records, three of which were Grammy-nominated. The band has a huge following. The water tower was viewed by community leaders as such an asset that it should be protected. In 2009 it was designated as a state historic landmark by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Considering Barber’s definition above, it is obvious that the water tower has increased the value of the community. That asset has been capitalized on with the renaming of the city’s fall festival to The Water Tower Festival, which features car shows, barbeque cooking contests, children’s activities, musical acts and much more. There is also the Water Tower 10K Race and Water Tower Coldwater River Canoe and Kayak Race. These events brought in thousands of visitors to the community in 2011.
Not content to rest on its assets (pun intended), the City of Hernando, led by Barber and his staff, has a general development plan that extends through 2027. Barber will be retiring within the next six months, but his influence and asset mapping ideas will be with his community for years to come.
Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Contact Hardwick at firstname.lastname@example.org.