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Downtown consultants review findings

| December 7, 2004 11:00 PM

By Brent Shrum Western News Reporter

A team of consultants contracted by Libby Revitalization Inc. to develop a comprehensive plan for the downtown area reviewed their progress and gathered additional input at a meeting last week at City Hall.

The project is intended to build upon previous studies and not ³reinvent the wheel,² said Lorraine Roach of the Hingston Roach Group. The focus is on downtown, particularly Mineral Avenue.

The downtown area, defined for the purposes of the project as the area between Main and Montana avenues and from U.S. Highway 2 to the railroad, contains more than 100 businesses with several hundred employees. The downtown area and the U.S. 2 corridor are two distinct business districts, Roach said. A major difference is that the downtown area is more pedestrian-oriented while the highway business district caters to the automobile.

³It¹s not about competing with each other,² she said. ³They are two different types of niches.²

Demographics

Roach reviewed population trends and demographics for the Libby area. The population is aging, with newcomers tending to be older and more affluent, she said.

Local residents fall well below the state average for post-high school education, with less than 15 percent having a two-year or higher college degree.

³From an economic development standpoint this is a bit of a concern,² she said.

Annual income, at $24,000, is also well below the state average.

A breakdown of the businesses downtown shows that 47 percent are retail, 17 percent are professional services, 12 percent are hospitality or entertainment and 5 percent are medical.

³This is actually a pretty good mix of businesses and services in the downtown area,² Roach said.

Most Libby retail businesses are reporting that sales have increased somewhat over the past two years, Roach said.

³So things are starting to pick up a bit after bottoming out,² she said.

Lodging sales have increased 49 percent since 1988, with the peak in 1998, Roach said.

Tourism

Roach moved on to a statistical study of out-of-state visitors to Lincoln County. According to 2002 figures, 30 percent are from Washington, 15 percent are from California, 10 percent are from Alberta and 7 percent are from Florida, with the remaining 38 percent from elsewhere.

More than three-fourths of visitors come during the summer months, with 61 percent on vacation, 19 percent visiting friends and relatives and 7 percent on business. Glacier National Park is a draw for 36 percent while 17 percent listed mountains as a draw.

Activities during the trip include shopping at 47 percent, wildlife watching or hunting at 42 percent, hiking at 41 percent, developed camping at 37 percent, picnicking at 34 percent, fishing at 32 percent, visiting historic sites at 22 percent, primitive camping at 20 percent and traveling to or from Lewis & Clark sites at 16 percent.

Strengths & Weaknesses

Larry Comer of Welch, Comer & Associates offered a presentation on strengths, weaknesses and opportunities based on the consulting team¹s analysis, community surveys and citizen interviews.

According to the study, key strengths for downtown include a central location and visibility, scenery, the wide right of way on Mineral Avenue, infrastructure in good condition, a variety of businesses, the occupancy level, growing relationships between businesses, the railroad depot and park, the cul-de-sac at the end of Mineral Avenue, a strong civic presence and dedicated volunteers.

Weaknesses include empty and unkempt buildings, little landscaping and poor lighting, deteriorated sidewalks, no pedestrian comforts such as benches, shade and bike racks, a lack of a cohesive and market-driven design concept, a weak sense of place, the distance between facades and low building profiles, parking, poor signage and wayfinding, weak collaboration among organizations, not enough retailers or dining, vandalism and the lack of development at the north end and Depot Park.

Opportunities listed by Comer include strengthening business retention and expansion, enhancing the farmers¹ market, continuing talks with the railroad on the depot and adjacent park, wayfinding and directional signs, curbing vandalism, developing a parking policy and program, gateway and aesthetic improvements, developing a cohesive design concept with an improved pedestrian environment, downtown brand development and targeted promotions, tourism capture and new development.

Need for Management

Roach stressed the need for management of the downtown business district. Even the smallest malls have managers, she said.

³A downtown is a mall without a roof,² she said.

Downtown revitalization doesn¹t happen by itself, she said, explaining that someone has to take the lead and in Libby¹s case it is LRI.

Roach reviewed the history and organization of LRI. The organization was established in 2003 and is run by a volunteer board with a paid executive director. Funding comes from a grant from the city¹s economic development fund.

LRI is currently in the middle of the second year of a proposed three-year funding cycle. The annual budget is $100,000, with $45,000 going toward operations and $55,000 for projects.

Streetscape Ideas

Planner and landscape architect Ron Slade of CTA Architects Engineers offered a presentation on potential physical improvements and beautification elements for the streetscape portion of the plan.

Slade displayed pictures of design elements used in projects his firm conducted at Billings and Big Sky, showing how components can be used to develop a streetscape and create a sense of place. Elements used included landscaping, benches, lighting, green space and art.

³Think about the places you have traveled that are vibrant, compelling human spaces,² he said.

He showed sketches of different types of signs that could be used in a streetscape project, pedestrian-friendly design elements, architectural design elements that can be used for downtown facades, and custom benches and bike racks.

Gathering Input

The 20 or so people attending the meeting were split into three groups, each with one of the consultants, to come up with their own ideas about barriers to achieving LRI¹s vision and goals and actions that can be taken to overcome those barriers. After the three groups had discussed the issues, each presented its findings.

Barriers listed by the groups included the need for more necessity items at downtown businesses to stop retail leakage, the lack of a ³critical mass² downtown, ³mom and pop² stores with few or no employees other than the owners, no cohesive business organization, the lack of character downtown and the lack of community consensus and participation.

Proposed actions to overcome barriers included an ³adopt a window² program, capitalizing on the development of an asbestos-related disease research center, off-street parking, promotions to shop downtown, clearing up confusion over the roles of different organizations and coordinating their efforts, and customer-service training.

The consultants plan to compile the results of the meeting and refine their situation assessment as part of the development of a draft action plan for local review and input. Another meeting is planned for late January or early February to gather input on designs for Mineral Avenue.