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December 02, 2008
SMALL TOWN BUSINESS
Group seeks best spot for downtown project
Three sites discussed as MainStreet tries to find initial 'anchor'
RATON, New Mexico (STPNS) -- Raton MainStreet is seeking a public project that could serve as an "anchor" downtown project designed to spark private investment in hopes of getting the revitalization of downtown started.
Although MainStreet officials and their hired consultants continually remind people that nothing has been finalized regarding the project that will be the initial project in the downtown master plan, the current discussion is focused on three site options for whatever project is chosen to try to jumpstart downtown development.
One of the sites is privately-owned - the lots immediately south of International Bank extending to the corner of South Second Street and Rio Grande Avenue - leaving it out of any consideration for the city or MainStreet using it directly, but Raton MainStreet Manager Shelly Wood said that by placing it among the key downtown sites in need of development, MainStreet hopes to "encourage some healthy discussion" about it and perhaps get it looked at as a site for private development later.
The other two sites being considered for some type of project are the area near the train depot on First Street, and the Cook Avenue block between First and Second streets.
The depot itself is the property of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. Previous negotiations between the city and railroad have failed to yield a deal to turn over the depot to the city. The State of New Mexico is scheduled to acquire the tracks from Lamy to the Colorado border this month, but BNSF will retain the depot. The only city-owned land along First Street by the depot is the "city parking lot" to the north of the depot. A suggestion has been made to consider developing a park on that lot.
The Cook Avenue site has been mentioned as being turned into a pedestrian mall that would be closed to traffic. That idea has drawn a mixed response, with a couple business and building owners in the abutting First Street block opposing it while other business and building owners on other parts of the block favor it. Those opposed believe blocking vehicle traffic will hinder business along First Street. Those who support the mall idea think it will bring more people downtown and improve business for stores throughout downtown.
In a letter to Raton Mayor Joe Apache, State Historic Preservation Officer Katherine Slick wrote that while pedestrian malls have succeeded in "university communities" with many walking and biking students, in most other communities such malls "have not been successful in creating a vibrant downtown; to the contrary, they have often been the death knell for small downtowns." She went on to write that any planning for a pedestrian mall in Raton's downtown historic district would require "coordination and review" with her office "to ensure the mall does not adversely affect the historic district."
Wood and other MainStreet officials have been careful to say that no specific project has been chosen as the first project. In fact, they emphasized at a public meeting last month and again at the city commission meeting last week that the process is only at the stage of trying to select the best site for a project. What the project would be on a given site remains to be seen.
In order to determine the best site, MainStreet has been seeking public input and now is awaiting data that is being developed by Anne Ricker, a real estate economist with Leland Consulting Group of Centennial, Colo. Ricker, who specializes in the revitalization of downtowns and other business districts, said the key aspect of the planning process is to figure out the best place in which to invest available money.
"It's not just throwing money somewhere," she said. "It's being strategic in how you invest it." She said she wants to "prepare strategies which capitalize on market opportunities for private investment through targeted public initiatives." According to Ricker, downtown Raton will be revitalized by "a hundred little efforts and a few significant catalyst projects" such as the one currently trying to be determined.
MainStreet is hoping that by January Ricker's economic analysis of the different potential downtown project sites will be complete for the organization and the public to review.
The money to actually fund a project still must be secured. Wood said MainStreet has looked into some state and federal funding options, but has yet to pursue anything specific for the future development.
Meanwhile, landscape architect Mike Hussey of Nolte Associates - the lead consulting engineers from Colorado Springs, Colo., hired by MainStreet for the Raton downtown master plan work - has developed some drawings for a streetscape throughout downtown to tie the area together visually. Those drawings include "bump outs" on street corners that extend sidewalks out a bit more than regular corners, and the addition of benches, planters, trash receptacles, trees along sidewalks, and bike racks. Hussey describes the overall concept as one that would increase downtown's "walkability."
Although the Raton MainStreet area is designated as mainly the downtown business district, the master plan will take in a larger area that runs from Francis Avenue to a little south of Legion Drive, and from the railroad tracks to Sixth Street.
Raton MainStreet raised $175,000 for development and early implementation of the master plan. The funding came from a $90,000 grant from the State of New Mexico through a capital improvement plan grant, a $25,000 grant from the City of Raton, and $60,000 from private foundations and other sources.
The plan is to be designed "for a comprehensive look at all aspects of downtown Raton, including provisions that regulate land use, provide development standards and outline economic revitalization," according to MainStreet. When completed, the master plan will consist of various stages allowing the plan to be phased in over time.
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