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Archive for Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Downtown dialogue

Downtown property and business owners have an important voice in the future of this evolving area.

January 17, 2007

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Calling it a "summit" may be a little grandiose, but a meeting planned next week is a worthwhile effort to encourage communication between downtown Lawrence and city government.

Lawrence's downtown is a wonderful asset. It draws praise from visitors to the city, as well as from residents who want to preserve its unique character. Maintaining downtown as a vital part of the city is important, but trying to place it in a time capsule isn't a valid strategy.

That's why it's important for city officials to talk to owners of downtown property and businesses about their concerns and ideas, rather than just assume they already fully understand the issues that affect the future of downtown.

Preserving the physical structure of downtown is important to everyone. Nothing will kill the vitality of downtown Lawrence faster than having it filled with crumbling structures and infrastructure. Two topics on the agenda for Tuesday's meeting focus on a waterline improvement project and an incentive program for businesses to install fire sprinklers.

After talking with downtown representatives last year, city officials were able to accommodate downtown wishes not to close entire blocks of Massachusetts Street during the waterline replacement project. The project was completed on schedule and with the least possible disruption to downtown businesses.

Historic downtowns in other cities have suffered devastating fire losses over the years, and Lawrence has narrowly avoided such a tragedy. Encouraging businesses to install fire sprinklers could significantly reduce the risk of a major fire that could destroy an entire block of buildings.

City Manager David Corliss also said he would like to update downtown stakeholders about expansion plans for the Lawrence Public Library - a project that will have a significant impact on downtown - and possible tax incentives for downtown businesses. Participants in the summit will be asked to complete a survey on priorities for downtown Lawrence.

The opinions of downtown property owners and businesses are a vital part of planning for this area. However, it is only one piece of the bigger picture that city officials must consider.

As it has since the founding of Lawrence, downtown is evolving. Although it is a vital part of the community, downtown no longer can be justified as the city's retail center and it would be silly to try to "protect" it as such. That doesn't mean, however, that it isn't a hub of activity for Lawrence. It is and should continue to be. Shops, restaurants and entertainment venues draw crowds to downtown. The desire of developers to build more downtown residences may promote different kinds of businesses that cater to people who live in the area.

In announcing Tuesday's meeting, Corliss said, "My goal for the summit is to continue matching city resources with the priorities that will create a thriving and desirable downtown."

The best way to do that is to bring everyone to the table to talk about how to make downtown thrive. It is hoped that next week's meeting will be well attended by downtown stakeholders ready to participate in a constructive dialogue about how to maintain downtown Lawrence as a desirable destination for both residents and visitors.

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