Twice the challenge
As municipalities across the country rushed to resurrect their historic districts, the city of Sanford has faced unique circumstances — and challenges — with two downtowns residing within city limits.
Revitalization efforts for downtown Sanford and historic Jonesboro have progressed slowly, according to city leaders, and, now, these same leaders are asking voters to consider a $6.5 million streetscape bond referendum to jump start the process.
The largest of the $14.5 million bond referendums slated for a vote during the Sept. 10 primary, the funds would be distributed to Jonesboro and downtown Sanford to upgrade and renovate various streets and intersections.
The city of Sanford hired McGill Associates in 2011 to design the “what could be” for downtown Sanford and historic Jonesboro, according to Sanford Mayor Cornelia Olive.
“When you look at the money, it’s not that great as far as costs of rehabilitating a downtown,” she said. “We are one of the few communities in our area that have not taken particular pride in our downtown. Towns smaller than Sanford have upgraded and acted accordingly.”
The Downtown Master Plan was meant to provide a framework for future improvements and renovation. The group highlighted the following eight factors of what makes a successful municipal districts:
• Mixed-use development: A combination of shops, restaurants, lodging, offices, activity centers and parks attract a diverse group of people.
• Entertainment: It extends the life of the downtown from the daytime into the evening with an assortment of shopping, dining, performing arts, sports activities and recreation opportunities.
• Public Centers: Structure which generate activity consist of museums, conference centers, government offices, performing arts centers and parks bring increased activity along with a diversity of visitors.
• Walkability: Destinations should be within 10 minutes of walking distance. Interconnected sidewalk and street networks create a vibrant downtown environment.
• Neighborhoods: Strong urban areas have established residential neighborhoods, which advocate the support of local downtown business.
• Investments: Downtowns should not completely rely on individual businesses and there must be public investment.
• Safety: The downtown area must be well policed to help make customers and business owners feel at ease.
• Pride: The downtown area must be a continued source of local and regional pride, and must be beloved by the citizenry.
“Downtown remains the cultural, financial and government service center of a community,” according to the master plan. “Attractive design, strategic renovation, thoughtful planning and a focus on the city’s unique identity can pay off in investment, diversification and competitiveness. The adaptive reuse of structures and the rediscover of natural features and traffic patterns that build the downtown initially can bring back vibrancy, energy and attention.”
The total for downtown Sanford streetscape improvements is estimated at $7.2 million and $2.9 million for Jonesboro, according to the master plan.
Lee County, carved from its neighbors in 1907, was one of the only counties in the United States to have a courthouse with a rural address for a number of decades. The courthouse was placed in the exact middle of the two municipalities — the town of Sanford and town of Jonesboro. In 1947, the town of Jonesboro became Jonesboro Heights and merged with Sanford to become the city today.
The bond funds, if approved by the voters, would be spent acquiring land and rights-of-ways, relocating utilities, renovating sidewalks and adding pedestrian traffic signals and crosswalks. In Jonesboro, the targeted streets would include Lee Avenue, Main Street and Trade Street.
When the bond referendums were first discussed in May, Sanford City Council voted to keep Jonesboro and downtown Sanford as a joint bond referendum item instead of separating the two areas. It was estimated that Jonesboro would receive approximately $1.5 million in total bond funds with downtown Sanford receiving approximately $5 million.
The pedestrian plan calls for an outdoor patio next to Landmark Restaurant on Main Street and upgrading the intersection of Lee Avenue and Main Street with vegetation, sidewalks and pedestrian crossings.
The city has made some recent progress on revitalizing Jonesboro, including installing a parking lot on Humber Street within the past six months. Pedestrian crosswalks and sidewalk were also recently constructed after the completion of the Autumn Oaks Apartment Complex, according to Bob Bridwell, Sanford-Lee County Planning director. The Autumn Oak projects was assisted by a $250,000 Community Development Block Grant.
“We try to amplify every thing by trying to get private investment,” Bridwell said. “There is no silver bullet in city business. It’s incremental investments that make things happen.”
There are some members of the Downtown Sanford Inc. Board who’ve been discussing streetscape improvements since before David Montgomery, DSI executive director, first joined city staff.
“I certainly thought there were opportunities (after the streetscape plans were completed),” Montgomery said. “There are larger communities and even some similar in size to us that have undergone these streetscape improvements.”
Sanford, like most downtowns, were built for pedestrian traffic and the city has to tap back into that pedestrian-friendly nature to drive people into the shops and downtown businesses, he said.
“Our focus is going to be on educating people on the projects,” Montgomery said. “From the DSI perspective, we support the projects. How they are funded is to be determined by the voters.”
The bond funds would target Carthage, Moore, Steele and Wicker streets, Horner Boulevard and various intersections within downtown.
For example, at the intersection of Wicker and Steele streets, an updated streetscape could include moving utility lines underground, installing new street lamps and crosswalks with decorative paving, and planted areas to be landscaped along with uniform street trees.
There have been some critics of the streetscape referendum who say the city should help businesses invest into downtown which will then spur the interest in providing streetscape improvements. To this, Bridwell said it’s been tried in the past and the city has to make the first move.
“The city has to make some kind of commitment to improving the quality of life and investment follows there on,” Bridwell said. “That is the way it works. Private investment can’t build off itself. Downtown has a lot of momentum and it needs to keep that movement.”