Thursday, January 31, 2013
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Steering committee updates the public on downtown revitalization project

Part 1: An overview of the project

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[January 31, 2013]  Tuesday evening, the Downtown Revitalization Steering Committee hosted a public meeting in the Pegram Room at the Lincoln Public Library. The event brought in a full house of interested business owners, city and county officials, and others as the group walked through what the revitalization project entails.

Much of what was discussed in the first part of the meeting was a recap of conversations that have been covered by LDN in the past. To understand the full history of the project, visit the links to past articles at the end of this one.

Darren Forgy of Prairie Engineers opened the meeting, reviewing with the public the scope of the project, which includes a 25-block area in the downtown district. The area encompasses the courthouse square and works its way out from there. It includes the Chicago and Sangamon Street rail corridor to the west, which has been characterized as a second downtown area in Lincoln. In addition, both Latham and Scully parks, which are county property, are included in the plan, as well as business areas along Broadway, Pulaski Street, Kickapoo and McLean streets.

Forgy spoke about the history of the project, outlining the process beginning in 2010, when the city applied for a downtown revitalization grant through the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. In January 2012 the city won the award, and a number of related activities have taken place since then.

Discussing the money aspect of the project, Forgy explained that the grant funds from DCEO total $675,000 and do require a local match. The current budget, including local match, comes to $775,000. That money has been divided into funding the planning and then actual implementation. He said $336,300 is being invested in the planning stages, leaving $438,800 for project implementation, which will not cover all that is being proposed. The city will have to find additional funding for many of the projects. This funding can come from future grants and also the possibility of a Rehabilitation TIF District for the downtown area.

What has been done thus far has included a lot of study of the downtown district by a variety of professionals looking at traffic flow, land use and a variety of other aspects of the downtown region.

Among those working with the steering committee is Ian Colgan of Development Concepts Inc. Colgan was present for the meeting and offered a PowerPoint presentation about the project.

Colgan said there are two stages to downtown revitalization: redevelopment and revitalization. He classified redevelopment as the precursor for the entire project and said it was basically the strategic plan for the future, with the revitalization portion being more of the design for the future.

He said this first stage offered the committee and the community a vision of what could be and gave those involved in the project of sense of direction. He also stated that the ultimate goal of the project is to improve the quality of life in Lincoln and boost economic development in the downtown area.

He said this could be done through improving shopping and dining opportunities, increasing arts and entertainment offerings, adding more special events in the downtown area, improving downtown housing and employment opportunities, and creating a desirable outdoor atmosphere.

Colgan spoke about the stumbling blocks the city might encounter as they try to achieve a successful revitalization. Among them, one key situation for the city is the size of the downtown area. Compared with other towns of similar population, Lincoln's downtown district is very large. He said basically the population of the city cannot financially support a fully developed downtown area. Therefore the city will need to draw consumers from outside the region to help support those businesses.

He commented on the great success of the Lincoln Art & Balloon Festival as something that brings a large number of people into the community, but he said there needed to be similar activities, such as special downtown events or smaller festivals dispersed throughout the year, to help drive traffic into the heart of the city.

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He would later talk about why the city's downtown is so large, drawing attention to the fact that Lincoln is unique in that it has two downtown regions: the courthouse square region and the rail region. He also noted that in this day and age, both footprints are obsolete. He explained that in Lincoln there is no "across the street" atmosphere that is the most desirable today. When shoppers come out of a business and are facing another interesting location "across the street," it creates a visual interest in what is on the other side.

Colgan said that in order for the city to catch the market, they are going to have to have interesting attractions, such as businesses that will call visitors back after a festival or event. He said in identifying what the city has right now, one draw could be the number of thrift and resale shops in the city. He said that in itself was a good and bad point, in that not all resale and thrift is considered attractive.

To draw in new businesses to the downtown, the city is going to have to make the area attractive to those new investors. He said building renovations can play into that, and again, that can be a pitfall. He noted that a lot of the buildings in the region were in fairly good condition, but that when there are renovations needed, it is going to be costly.

Colgan finally noted that right now the city doesn't have a solid organization working toward growing the downtown business community. He noted that this needed to be a group of people similar to what the steering committee is now. These people need to be focused and driven to bringing new businesses to the area as well as supporting and helping the existing businesses continue to thrive.

He also made mention that when the studies were started, the Main Street organization was without a director, and that they have recently hired one. This is a good thing for the future of revitalization. Likewise, he also noted that the city of Lincoln has recently hired a city administrator, and he said that person, too, would play a key role in bringing business into the region.

Some of the key issues the city is facing in downtown revitalization include helping visitors find the downtown region, making it more attractive to the visitor and providing ample parking for day-trippers, so they can shop and spend dollars.

In the next segment, Colgan's discussions will include viable ideas about what can be done to resolve some of those issues.


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