A Lawrence Chamber of Commerce task force and Downtown Lawrence Inc. made their first move Thursday toward establishing a broader coalition to advance a plan for downtown development.
The chamber last week released a proposal its Downtown Development Task Force had written, calling for expansion of downtown Lawrence to improve the central business district's economic viability. Among points in the plan are recommendations to expand the boundaries of downtown, improve traffic access and parking and consider forming a development corporation to acquire and develop land in the expanded central's district.
At Thursday's meeting of the chamber's Downtown Development Task Force and the DLI board of directors, the groups discussed their strategy for involving neighborhood organizations in the effort to carry the proposal to city hall.
Bob Georgeson, chairman of the chamber task force, said the two groups agreed to schedule a series of meetings. They hope to explain the development proposal to downtown merchants who aren't members of the DLI and to neighborhood groups, who would be invited to join the coalition.
"THE COALITION would take this report and address the areas they aren't comfortable with," Georgeson said. "There would be an opportunity for input."
Although no meetings have been scheduled, Georgeson said he expected dates to be set soon.
"We think it's important to do that quickly," he said. "We're going to extend an invitation to all the neighborhoods in the community, although there are probably only about four or five that are really interested," he said, referring to neighborhoods that border downtown and the main trafficways that lead to the central business district.
Georgeson noted that as more groups become involved, the process is likely to slow down.
"It gets a little bulky because everybody then has to go back to their respective boards and get them to sign off on it," he said.
Georgeson said that the DLI board and chamber task force envision that once the coalition reaches a consensus on the proposal, the city commission would be asked to schedule a study session. The plan already has been endorsed by the boards of both the chamber and the DLI.
THE MEETING Thursday was billed as a private gathering of the chamber task force and DLI board and was not open to the press or public. However, Georgeson said that several representatives of neighborhood groups had asked to sit in and were allowed to attend.
He noted that once the proposal reached city hall, any community interests that had not had an opportunity for input through the coalition also could participate in the process.
Andrew Ramirez, chairman of DLI, said he and DLI board members who attended Thursday's meeting were pleased with the discussion.
"I think the consensus of the entire board was that it was extremely constructive," he said.
"If I have any disappointment, it's that representatives of some of the neighborhood groups believe that downtown merchants and businesses have some interest in razing old historic homes to expand downtown and that is absolutely incorrect."
Deitre Weismiller, president of the East Lawrence Improvement Assn., said she was one of the neighborhood representatives who attended the meeting. Weismiller raised concerns last week that the proposal might be calling for the encroachment of downtown development upon surrounding neighborhoods and that neighborhood organizations were being brought into the process only after the chamber had produced the proposal.
"I STILL maintain the neighborhoods should have been involved from the beginning and at the very least, from this point forward, we should be involved," she said.
Weismiller said she was uncertain from attending Thursday's meeting whether the neighborhood organizations now would be allowed to actively participate in the process unless they formally joined the coalition and endorsed the proposal.
"My feeling is that they're perfectly willing to meet with us, but until and unless we're willing to join this coalition to advance this plan, we're not going to have meaningful input," she said.
Georgeson said he was uncertain whether Weismiller's perception was accurate. Georgeson maintains it is appropriate to limit input to members of the chamber and DLI as long as the proposal remains within those two private organizations. However, he said he wasn't sure what will happen once the coalition is formed and the chamber no longer is taking the lead.
"What I really don't have a grasp on is how we're going to structure this," he said.