Friday, March 16, 2018

Sidewalk strategizing & a new face or two ...

Robin Bostrom, Iowa Downtown Resource Center small business specialist, was in Chariton late Thursday afternoon to lead a public meeting at the Community Center devoted to sidewalks --- in this case those somewhat battered ribbons of concrete, some a century old, that line the outer perimeter of the Courthouse Square Historic District and provide access to all the buildings around it.

That gave me a chance to line up the current staff of Chariton Area Chamber/Mainstreet, which coordinated the meeting. I was a founding member of the board of that organization, but that's been a few years ago and I've gotten lax about paying as close attention to what's going on downtown as I should, including Chamber/Main Street staff changes.

So --- here are (from left) Florence Heacock, office administrator; Robin Bostrom, featured speaker during the meeting; Katie Wilson, marketing and social media coordinator; Alyse Hunter, who heads  the Chamber/Main Street Design Division (on which I continue to serve) and Alyssa Trunck, who recently succeeded Kris Patrick as Chamber/Main Street executive director. That position became vacant when Kris, long-time executive director, accepted a similar position in Fort Dodge.


The official sponsor of Tuesday's meeting was the Sidewalk Task Force, an informal group open to anyone interested in attending its meetings that consists of Chamber/Main Street Design Division members and other staffers, city officials, owners of buildings that front on the square and more.

We've been meeting off and on for perhaps three years --- after it became evident from a variety of surveys and other outreach efforts that the condition of sidewalks was a top priority for those interested in Chariton's incremental downtown "streetscape" program. Some of these sidewalks date back to construction during the early 20th century of the buildings behind them and a few have begun to deteriorate seriously. Settling, cracking and other issues also have created hazards for those who use them.

We've talked a lot, taken research trips to nearby cities --- Knoxville, Centerville, Bloomfield and Mt. Ayr among them --- that have completed downtown projects during recent years and otherwise discussed sidewalk needs and the resources necessary to met them.

The city now hopes to begin allocating funds for an incremental sidewalk project during 2020, so the need for more concerted effort has developed. 

Those sidewalks in downtown Chariton, as in most comparable cities, are actually public property --- right up to where the buildings that front on them begin --- but building owners are responsible for their care and maintenance. However, when it comes to replacement, the city hopes to assume as much of the cost as possible.

And there are a variety of other considerations involved. Street lighting around the outer perimeter of the square, for example, has been around since at least the 1950s and needs updating --- the wiring for a new lighting system needs to be under new sidewalks. And then there's the fact that many of the sidewalks serve as ceilings for vaults into which coal once was dumped and stored. These vaults have to be filled and sealed before new sidewalks are put into place. And then there's the question of decorative elements, plantings, pedestrian crossings --- what should these items look like and who is going to pay for them?

So there's lots to talk about and anyone interested in joining the conversation is welcome --- just watch for meeting notices or ask to be added to the Chamber/Main Street e-mail list.


Robin was invited to speak Thursday evening primarily because she was serving as executive director of Main Street West Union when the Fayette County seat undertook and successfully completed a streetscape program involving six downtown blocks and costing in excess of $10 million (the city bonded for about $3 million; the remaining funds coming from grants and other public and private sources).

Although the West Union project was on a much larger scale and was undertaken all at once --- as opposed to Chariton's incremental approach --- she had a good deal of wisdom to share in regard to strategy, planning, pitfalls and lessons learned.

Chariton actually has a number of advantages not enjoyed by West Union before the project there began. For example, utilities feed into buildings around Chariton's square from alleys; in West Union, utilities feed from under the streets in front of the buildings. So streetwork was a major component of the project there so that new water, sanitary sewer and storm sewer lines could be installed. There are no current plans to disturb Chariton streets in this phase of the project.

In addition, courthouse sidewalks, lighting and infrastructure all have been dealt with during earlier projects here --- so there are no current plans to alter those arrangements. That was been the case in West Union.

West Union also decided to turn itself into almost a case study for a "green" approach to downtown revitalization. Sidewalks, for example, are made up of permeable pavers and not poured concrete; plantings are entirely native vegetation designed to help control runoff and lessen the load on the Turkey River, into which West Union drainage flows via two trout streams. The "green" approach, which included geothermal access stubbed into each building in the district, made much more grant funding available than a basic concrete approach like Chariton's will.

Whatever the case, it was an interesting and useful presentation. My favorite take-away, however, involved nomenclature. Everyone who works with the general public probably has encountered folks who by nature resist change. I've always called these guys the "just-don't-change-anything-until-I'm-dead" contingent. Robin introduced the CAVE concept --- Citizens Against Virtually Everything. I'm going to remember that one. And also that the long-term is to convince the CAVErs that change is inevitable, necessary in many instances and can be a positive force rather than a frightening one.

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