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City approves concept of downtown revitalization plan

The downtown revitalization project isn't simply landscaping, crosswalks and pretty scenery.

It's a vehicle to drive economic change.

That's the message city leaders got Tuesday night as they listened to a comprehensive proposal drafted by Omaha consultants.

The plan, approved in concept by the city council, envisions revamping Main Street, changes to Park Rapids' waterfront areas to enhance their access and use, a possible hotel/event center on the Fish Hook River, art installations and other improvements to four designated areas.

"There's so much in the plan it'll take us a long time to get there," mayor Nancy Carroll said. She questioned how long it would take to accomplish the lofty goals.

Business leaders attending the meeting acknowledged there might be "practical limitations" on how fast the city could move forward, but that it should proceed nonetheless.

The time frame to revamp the downtown area is one of the unknowns, along with the cost. City leaders have approved the plan in theory, but haven't committed the city to any spending yet, and haven't committed to which parts of the plan they will adopt.

"We've got plenty of work and research to do in the next 1½ years," said Main Street business owner Ellis Jones, a member of the downtown revitalization committee.

"We do have a significant opportunity here," said Peter McEwen, an-other business owner and committee member. "There won't be a chance like this in our lifetimes."

In urging the city to approve the plan, McEwen pointed out to council members "it's getting more and more competitive out there. We're competing for attention, tourism and dollars."

The plan envisions creating an exuberant downtown economy so that people wouldn't be tempted to spend money elsewhere. This component of the plan is a serious commitment to preserving the downtown area as a commerce district.

Council members heard about neighboring cities that permitted urban sprawl, which eventually killed off their downtown economies.

Park Rapids backers of the plan don't want that to happen here.

Urban planner Cory Scott, representing the Omaha firm that drafted the downtown plan, said he was surprised by the community support and high interest for the plan. More than 400 businesses and individuals submitted surveys, giving planners significant input as to what residents desired.

"There was substantial amount of public involvement," he said. "It creates an interesting environment to do business," Scott told city leaders.

The plan conceives a "city campus" atmosphere that melds long-term goals of both the city and park districts.

Scott presented the results of other downtown plans his firm has created showing retention of businesses and evaporation of inner city vacancy rates for existing buildings. The plans work, he maintained.

Simultaneously, the Hubbard County Regional Economic Development Commission is applying for a $750,000 development grant to help small cities refurbish existing buildings. This would be accomplished through deferred payment loans in which 66 percent of the rehab work would be assumed in the grant under certain conditions.

One concern city leaders have is tearing up the downtown streets to initiate the plan. Jones admitted, "it creates anxiety thinking of all of Main Street being torn up."

Council member Ted Godfrey questioned whether merchants could withstand another season of road construction. "I looked around this summer and thought it was a little skimpy," he said of the retail business. "Maybe we should give it a year rest and go at it."

Jones and McEwen said the downtown area, which got off this year to a slow start due to many factors, should bite the bullet and embrace the plan, even though their own businesses would be affected by more construction.

'People are used to construction," McEwen said. "They can find their way downtown. We just have to have a good strategic plan to stay in business during construction."

The two business owners discussed how Perham merchants successfully survived a downtown renovation by working with contractors at every phase of the construction, kept alley access to stores and drafted clever promotions that capitalized on the work in progress.

"I'd rather get this out of the way and get on with the future than hold back," McEwen said.

"From the heart we can make a better city together," Jones added.