We love to compare ourselves with other cities, don’t we? Austin, Portland, Oklahoma City, Huntsville — line ‘em up! Let’s send delegations of businesspeople, politicians and nonprofit execs to visit with their counterparts, and let’s try to learn from the successes of our peer cities.
Oh that’s right — we’ve already done that. Our teams have come back bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, full of fresh new ideas for revitalizing our dumpy little city.
We need Portland’s trolleys, Austin’s music scene, Indianapolis’ sports business, Oklahoma City’s downtown dynamism and Huntsville’s defense contractors. Let’s get to work right now!
And then nothing happens.
Maybe we’re looking for love in all the wrong places. Maybe we should find a city that’s more like ours, with similar problems and opportunities.
Think of it this way: If you’re trying to grow a small business, you don’t call Bill Gates or the CEO of Exxon-Mobil. They can’t help you — they can’t even remember what it’s like to be stuck, struggling and overwhelmed by apparently insoluble problems. Self-satisfied cities like Indianapolis and Portland can’t help us — like a rich brother-in-law, they make us feel like miserable failures.
So here’s a city that closely matches ours.
It was founded in 1859, a dozen years before Colorado Springs. By 1900, a lovely little town had taken shape on the bluffs above a stream flowing down from the rugged mountains to the east. Silver and gold from nearby mines fueled the city’s early growth, but a modest visitor industry grew as the mines played out.
The city stagnated between 1900 and 1950, but postwar prosperity ignited an era of explosive growth. From a population of 10,800 in 1950, the city grew to 255,000 residents in 2010.
The city: Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Tourism is Vallarta’s lifeblood, accounting for almost 50 percent of its economy. Growth has slowed in recent years, though, as tourists choose other regional destinations perceived as safer and more scenic. Competitors such as Ixtapa and Cancun are, like Vail and Copper Mountain, built-to-order tourist havens without city problems.
I’ve visited PV a half-dozen times in the past 25 years, most recently last week. We go there because it’s inexpensive during the offseason and because it’s a real city with lovely old buildings and interesting history.
Until the late 1980s, the hotels, shops, and restaurants that catered to tourists were clustered around the city’s historic core. Since then, most of the growth has taken place along the beaches on the north shore of Banderas Bay.
The city center declined. Its picturesque Malecon, a narrow pedestrian walkway along the waterfront, was overwhelmed by the noise and fumes of an adjacent street. Once the city’s heart, it was increasingly shunned by residents and visitors alike.
This fall, the city completed a breathtaking renovation and expansion of the Malecon. The road was largely re-routed, and the walkway was lengthened, widened, and enlivened with spectacular bronze sculptures. The quiet, romantic village made famous by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during the 1963 filming of Night of the Iguana has disappeared, but a vibrant new city seems to be taking shape. It’s one symbolized by the graceful pedestrian bridge arching over the Rio Cuale, the stream that meanders through central Vallarta as Monument Creek once meandered through Colorado Springs.
Yet despite the revived Malecon and the gleaming 30-story condo towers that line the northern beaches, Vallarta has many challenges.
Just as last summer’s fire sullied the image of Colorado Springs, the drug-related violence that plagues Mexico has frightened away American visitors. PV’s revenues have not kept up with the demands of an expanding population, and many neighborhoods lack basic services, including paved streets, sewers, and potable drinking water.
“There are people who really hate what Vallarta has become,” the young American who manages Oscar’s, a historic downtown restaurant, told us one evening, “but I think of the thousands of jobs that this city provides for people who otherwise wouldn’t have opportunity.”
Walking back to our hotel in the damp tropical heat, we stopped at a seaside bar for a nightcap. I thought of Tejon Street, of Martin Drake Power Plant, and of our faltering attempts to revive our own waterfront.
We could learn from Puerto Vallarta, a city with problems that far surpass ours but a civic will to match those problems.
So let’s launch another delegation — any volunteers? Just remember, I’m first in line.