EVART - Evart city officials, DDA members and residents recently came together to share ideas about the future of downtown Evart during a meeting with the Michigan State University Sustainable Built Environment Institute. SBEI is a program that assists communities in addressing physical planning, design and land use issues. The goal is to integrate planning and design elements within a sustainability framework. Plans can include downtown streetscapes, parks, bikeways and trails, open spaces, industrial and commercial reuse, beautification, signage, land use and preservation, ecosystem management, and neighborhood development. "This is a program the Evart DDA and Michigan Main Street decided to pursue to help us envision what the downtown area could look like," said DDA board president Alan Bengry. "This is the visioning process. The MSU team will go through the process with us and come back to us with a design plan." The Evart DDA received a $10,500 grant from the Osceola County Community Foundation to help fund a collaboration with the Michigan State University School of Planning, Design and Construction to develop a plan to revitalize the downtown area. "These things only work with having the involvement and participation of the community," said meeting facilitator Wayne Beyea, director of the SBEI an senior specialist with the Urban and Regional Planning Program in the MSU School of Planning, Design and Construction. "We have worked with communities all over the state over the past few years and some of the techniques we have used in other communities we will work on with you," he continued. "The thing we will be focusing on tonight is your insights for the downtown area. Our team did a walk-around the area with city officials, and now we are getting public input." During the workshop style meeting, attendees were asked to share what they like about living in Evart, what they dislike about living in Evart and what they would like to see in the downtown area in15 years. "Take a few minutes to write down your thoughts about what makes you proud about the downtown area," Beyea told those in attendance. "What is it that you are proud of, what brings people here and what keeps you here?" A recurring theme in the responses to this question was pride in the people that got the downtown initiative together and what they are doing to move things forward with respect to improving the downtown area, including the volunteers that have worked to improve the bump outs and other garden areas. Other responses included pride in the new businesses that have come into the area, as well as the historic businesses that have been around for many years, the great sense of community and the community being inviting. "One other thing I heard mentioned was town pride, including the banners downtown that show school pride the Guyton Park Veterans Memorial," Mayor Chris Emerick said. "In addition, the businesses downtown take pride in their window displays. Main Street is the first thing you see when you come through town, and the businesses there have really gone above and beyond to decorate their windows that help with that appearance and make the town more welcoming." In response to the question about what is not liked about the community, attendees mentioned the vacant buildings as a main issue. "In addition to the vacant businesses, a lot of them have apartments above them that are empty because they are not maintained," council member Sandy Szeliga said. Bengry added that there is a lack of affordable housing and that if more people could afford to live in the area, there may be more support for local businesses that could fill the vacant buildings downtown. "There is also a lack of business diversity downtown," Bengry said. "For those people that live here and do not have dependable transportation, where do they go to buy groceries, or do laundry? How do they access all those things necessary for living? In a successful downtown, there should be a place you can go to purchase what you need to make a meal. We no longer have that type of business downtown." Other responses included no clear access to the river, a lack of family entertainment that brings people downtown and a lack of signage to bring people to the downtown area. "We have a lot of businesses downtown, but not something that will bring families downtown on a Saturday," Szeliga said. "There is a lack of foot traffic because there is a lack of things to do." Bengry added that there is a lack of signage letting people know how to get to downtown and what is there. "U.S. 10 makes it too easy to just fly on by," he said. Two areas where attendees said they would like to see improvement in particular are connectivity throughout the area and more family entertainment. "What we would like to see in the next 15 years is connections between north and south downtown, and connections with the fairgrounds and downtown," Bengry said. "We want to see people on the streets, more family activities, improvements in the farmers market." Other suggestions were improving river access and development of the area around the river, including a possible Riverwalk and condos or apartments with access to the river, as well as connectivity from the downtown area to the river. "We have heard some new things, and you have reinforced some themes that we have heard before," Beyea said following the discussions. "Our next step is to take all of this information, summarize those ideas, and work up some design plans based on what we have heard." The MSU team will take the information gathered and develop design plans to be presented at a future meeting. The proposed plans will focus on improving walkability and pedestrian mobility in the downtown district with potential connections to the Muskegon River, city parks and the U.S. 10 corridor, Beyea said. The goal of the project is to provide a launching pad for the community to create a more attractive, pedestrian friendly, and visually impressive downtown area and make it a destination for residents and visitors. For more information on the SBEI and future DDA meetings, visit evart.or\/DDA or call 231-734-0185.