Evart DDA hosts third Sustainable Built Environment initiative meeting

Improvements to downtown area a priority for city officials

EVART — The Evart Mainstreet/Downtown Development Authority, along with city officials and residents met for a third time with Michigan State University Sustainable Built Environment Initiative representatives to discuss improvements to the downtown area.

DDA board president Alan Bengry said what started a year ago with a grant from the Osceola County Community Foundation, which paid for consulting services from the MSU SBEI staff, is now culminating with the final designs. 

“Our first meeting was mainly a brainstorming session, while the second meeting was bringing some of those ideas into a visual form allowing us to critique them and voice what we liked and didn’t like,” Bengry said. “This is sort of the final product.”

SBEI program director Wayne Beyea said the project began with establishing five goals for design recommendations from the information gathered during the initial meeting, which included placemaking, connectivity, streetscapes, sustainability and visual quality.

“As we go through this process, we will hone in on some of the changes we made based on the feedback we received,” Beyea said. “Our recommendations have focused on the Main Street area and connectivity with the river and the fairgrounds. We focused on street design, pedestrian mobility and connectivity.

“One thing to remember,” he continued, “is that this is a visioning process — that the design recommendations are meant to be visionary — and there are a number of steps that need to take place before we have something we can go out and build. The final report won’t have cost estimates and final designs. Those are things that you will have to move forward with as part of the process.”

'A LOT OF GOOD FEEDBACK'

Beyea said the design images were based on input received as to what residents wanted to see, which included placemaking, activity, emotional reaction and connectivity.

“The idea of placemaking is one key aspect that we think is an important goal to have overall in the design,” he said. “Placemaking is what a lot of communities are focusing on, asking what makes the community unique. You have the physical space — the downtown area, the other part is the activity that is taking place, events taking place, people walking around. What is also reflected in some of this work is the emotional reaction — how people feel. A good downtown that is working well has that certain social component.”

Connectivity is one of the key components that was heard during the previous meetings that will need to be emphasized in the planning and design, along with steetscapes, walkability in the downtown area, safety and emphasis on the existing assets, he added.

Also included is the idea of sustainability, which means enabling the community to stay resilient, building things that will last the test of time, minimizing the environmental impact, saving costs through energy conservation and the visual aspect, he said.

“The lasting impression of most downtowns is the visual quality. People will park and walk to downtown if they really want to be there and there are some unique aspects to it,” Beyea said. “These are all components that we have incorporated into the planning and design aspects.” 

The design recommendations focused on improved and extended sidewalks that connect the fairgrounds, the downtown area, the farmers market area and other places of importance to the city; improved safety for pedestrians and bikes with clearly marked crosswalks with texture and visibility; wayfinding signage throughout the city; additional bike racks and seating along the main streets; improved visual aesthetics with new sidewalks, improved building facades and added color; and gathering space for community events.

“We got a lot of good feedback and insights about what you liked, what improvements you would like to see, and we tried to address those in our design recommendations,” Beyea said. “Hopefully, with this report and design images, residents can get a sense of what could be moving forward.”

Beyea added that once the ideas are formed, the hard part is figuring out how the projects will be funded. One important aspect of that the city is on track with is the Redevelopment Ready Communities certification, which offers access to many resources and grant opportunities that can assist with community development projects.

“They want communities to be ready for redevelopment so that if you get the opportunity, you have the right policies in place and the right permitting in place, and you have the data and information to help with private-public relationships,” he said. “This is one of the key elements to being ready to build.

“It starts with a process like this and builds from there, he continued. “When you have the momentum, both the private and public sector can come together and one grant, one donation, one volunteer at a time can move things forward.”

The SBEI staff will take the information from the meetings, pull it all together in a final report the city can use as a guide for future development and improvements, which can also be a template for applications to grant programs, he said.