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City seeks engineer for downtown plans

| March 9, 2006 11:00 PM

By BRENT SHRUM Western News Reporter

The Libby City Council on Monday voted unanimously to advertise for an engineer to develop plans for a downtown renovation project based on streetscape designs commissioned by Libby Revitalization Inc.

Initial estimates put the total cost of the project at $7.65 million.

Hiring an engineer to define the scope of the project will allow the city to move toward establishing a special improvement district to serve as an initial source of local funding, said Larry Comer of Welch Comer & Associates, which worked on the streetscape plan for LRI.

"It's hard to get outside funds unless the community antes up, and that's what that SID would be," Comer said.

SIDs are formed to finance improvements within a defined area. Property inside the district is assessed at a rate based on frontage. Comer suggested $75 or $100 per front foot, which would equal $3,750 to $5,000 on a 50-foot lot and could raise around $400,000 altogether. Property owners could pay the assessment all at once or make payments over a number of years, with interest.

Creation of an SID would allow the city to sell bonds, with the assessments serving as a source of repaying those bonds. For grant applications requiring local matching funds, an SID is considered as good as cash even if the bonds haven't yet been sold, Comer told the council.

If the city decides to form an SID, it would have to advertise its intent and give property owners within the district an opportunity to protest. Creation of the district could be stopped if protests are filed by owners assessed 50 percent of the cost or controlling 50 percent of the land area.

The initial phase of the streetscape plan includes the creation of sidewalk dining opportunities, art displays, installation of hanging flower baskets, relocating and restoring the railroad depot at the end of Mineral Avenue and improving business and wayfinding signs. Heavier construction, to take place in a later phase, would include building entry monuments, landscaping along the streets and narrowing crosswalks by extending corner curbs out into the street. A sculpture would be placed at the end of Mineral Avenue near the relocated depot, which would serve as a center for historic displays. The adjacent park would also be improved.

The cost of Mineral Avenue streetscape improvements, including landscaping, tree planting and curb and crosswalk work, has been estimated at $4.85 million. Work at the depot would add another $1.62 million, a project to improve the park at the old high school another $561,300, and improvements to Lincoln Boulevard and Second Street between Mineral and California avenues $430,100 and $191,200, respectively.

The cost estimates were provided to the city council by Comer and other consultants at a meeting last September. At that meeting, the council voted 6-0 to endorse the plan.

At Monday's meeting, the council heard from municipal and economic development officials from Bonners Ferry, Idaho, who provided an overview of a similar downtown renovation in their town. According to the Bonners Ferry officials, the ongoing downtown project there has resulted in a significant decrease in the number of vacant buildings in the business district and higher than expected private investment by business owners.

The image of a town that that has nowhere to go but up can be enticing to investors, Comer said.

"If they think a town has bottomed out and is starting to come back up, that's when the investors want to jump in," he said.