Cityworks (X)po
October 19, 2012 :00am

Making a small city better is CityWorks (X)po's focus

At CityWorks (X)po, participants are brainstorming how to fill economic and cultural voids.

By matt [dot] chittumatroanoke [dot] com (Matt Chittum)
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Twitter: Follow social media editor @smogilvie on Twitter for live updates from the CityWorks (X)po, and use #Xpo12 to share your thoughts.

At 7:15 on the schedule for the first day of CityWorks (X)po in Roanoke on Thursday is a man attempting to break his own record for riding a unicycle blindfolded.

Surely an act of trust, but not exactly what is meant by the second annual gathering's tagline, "Radical Trust."

When you want to make the small city where you live better — the theme and purpose of the three-day (X)po — you've got to be able to count on somebody else, said (X)po Director Brent Cochran.

"These are ideas that unfortunately go against the mainstream," he said. "It takes a leap of faith."

Master of ceremonies Toni Blackman, described as a "international champion of hip-hop culture," reinforced that idea from the start, asking the nearly 400 people packed into the City Market Building's Charter Hall to say after her, "I am open ... to growing ... to learning ... to transformation."

That sort of inspiration is a hallmark of the event, a brainchild of Roanoke developer Ed Walker, but Walker said in opening remarks it's ultimately about "how you get work done on the ground in real places with less money."

That kind of close-to-the-earth reality is what Aaron Floyd, 31, an architect from Mouth of Wilson in Grayson County, is looking for. Floyd and two other investors have bought up about a third of his hometown, with a current population of about five dozen, with the idea of filling an economic and cultural void in their part of the world.

"It's easy to get inspired," Floyd said. What's lacking is "a system for developing new places like this."

(X)po may not produce a system — it is studiously not about "deliverables" Walker said — but its hope is that people like Floyd will come away with big ideas and friendships with people who can help make them happen.

The event features speakers during the day, followed by parties where the presenters and attendees all mingle, talk about what they've heard, and hopefully incubate new ideas, too.

Kennedy Smith, an expert in commercial district revitalization and a favorite from last year's inaugural (X)po, gave a keynote speech about the best ideas of 2012 as an opening bid.

Smith set the historical context by comparing 2012 to 1912 — when food vendors sold on the street, people lingered in coffee shops and bought vegetables at farmers markets. All those things are making comebacks today.

It was about halfway through that 100 years when things went awry. The interstate highway system sped the creation of suburbs, changing living and retail patterns. Kmart, Target and Wal-Mart were all founded in 1962, Smith noted.

But that structure is crumbling, she said, citing statistics that 25 percent of shopping malls are less than 75 percent occupied, and nearly 1,000 malls have been demolished in the past five years.

More change is on the way, Smith said, driven by young "millennials" who have decidedly different consumer habits. They're more likely to spend locally, buy used things, share things, and buy things that last longer. A third believe they'll own their own business in 10 years.

In that vein, she began her "best of" list, which included:

nThe growth of finding local capital for local businesses, including "crowdfunding" through mechanisms like the website Kickstarter and the advent of selling stock locally since a change in federal law allowed it.

nPlayful ideas like a high-end men's clothing store in the back of a Boston bodega that's entered through a door disguised as a Snapple machine.

nA cookie business that instead of renting a single retail space rented four square feet in several existing businesses and set up in a different location every morning.

Her list went on for more than half an hour, and she was just the first of nearly 30 presenters, including artists, planners, designers, heads of nonprofits, entrepreneurs and others.

"It's like, wow," said Van Willis, town manager of Port Royal, S.C., who read about (X)po in a July New York Times story about Walker and decided to check it out.

"It's a bit overwhelming," Willis said. "It's cut from a different cloth than any other municipal conference."