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September 2020
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Things that make you go hmm on the downtown planning

    At the recent packed-house discussion of Jasper downtown transportation, there was a lot of enthusiasm, which is good. But listening to the comments, some of this optimism over the process may have been geared towards unrealistic expectations.
    Not to dampen, but hopefully to constrain, some of the more exuberant ideas. Please consider the following:
    “The city is held back by a lack of vision.” This was the number one most commonly cited weakness that consultants Kimley-Horn uncovered. The consultant tried to soft-pedal it so that those who are writing the checks, Jasper City Hall, weren’t offended.
    But it is really not accurate. There is a vision for what people want: basically for us to have a downtown where nice shops stay open late with well-lit, tree-lined streets and there are plenty of stylish pedestrians window-shopping and very convenient parking. While we are at it, let’s throw in that is remains a perpetual 75 degrees with sunny skies year-round.
    There is no lack of vision for what is wanted, but it’s true there isn’t any clear cut path to reach that vision. So much depends on what the existing businesses do and who shows up in the future with ideas and capital for a venture in an empty space.
    Many people at the meeting argue as though it is a fundamental law that if Jasper winds up with the right signage, right width of sidewalks and a nice theme of street-lamps, the downtown will see business boom. We are not convinced this is a sure bet.
    In fact, a greatly improved streetscape along Main was accomplished years ago and did not produce a longterm growth trend in business. The sidewalks here are nice, the downtown monument at the north end, the grassy park on the south end, that there are trees (regardless of whether you like the current crop) all amount to an attractive streetscape for Main Street.
    Bear in mind, the minions for years cried out, “Oh if we could do something about that blue building, it would help all of Main Street.” Voila, blue building restored more grandly than anyone could have wished for and it’s sitting empty.   
    • One of the more interesting ideas presented at the meeting was to work on the two back streets which parallel Main Street.  This may not be that useful as those streets (Mark Whitfield/West Street on the west and East Street on the east) serve in many places as backdoors of the buildings fronting Main Street.
    But to totally contradict the above point, the expansion of the downtown area with new streetscapes and routing of traffic into  backstreets, the area behind the Methodist church, (not to mention creating “connectivity” to old the Piggly Wiggly area), is an ambitious plan that might bear fruit. Maybe if people see a lot more nicely connected space it will give a renewed confidence in bringing businesses to town. Maybe?           
    There were some simpler points from that meeting, we would like to second:
    • The need for a better entrance to Jasper on Highway 515. A few trees, nice signs, some flowers and people on the four-lane know they are somewhere when they reach the Highway 53 intersection.
    • A little attractive signage in downtown. How about something directing people to the courthouse and the parking for it?
    Let’s be hopeful that some solid small changes will result from the planning process. Maybe we’ll see some traffic improvements and some attractive signage.         And more importantly this will allow our vision of a thriving downtown to result. But let’s keep in mind that neither Rome nor an improved Jasper will be built in a day.