This is something we should all be upset about

This column ran in the October 1 edition of the Northfield News.

In March 2002, the Northfield Downtown Development Corporation Board decided to achieve greater focus on specific objectives by creating functional task forces. One of these groups was the Economic Viability Committee. Determined to make things happen, they renamed themselves “The Action Squad.”

Original members of the Action Squad included Dan Bergeson, Scott Davis, Kiffi Summa, Connie Halpern-Manners, Jim Bohnhoff, Bart deMalignon, Brenda Burke, and Jim Pokorney. One of the top priorities they set was the downtown infrastructure or streetscape elements.

This group donated their time to walk the sidewalks, cross the streets, stroll the Riverwalk and explore the dark alleys, parking lots and trash receptacles of downtown. They did an inventory of existing conditions, researched potential products and proposed specific projects.

In July 2003, the Action Squad presented its findings and recommendations to the Northfield City Council. Their presentation was captured in a 31 page document generously illustrated with photographs of existing conditions and recommended solutions and included prices and vendor contact information.

The recommendations included adding bike racks, newspaper box corrals and way-finding signage. It was a modest plan estimated to cost less than $30,000. With the exception of the way-finding signage, the Action Squad believed that the entire proposal could have been installed within a matter of months. The investment would have made a substantial impact on the appearance, cleanliness and safety of downtown.

The council thanked the Action Squad for its work and assured them that their recommendations would be taken into consideration in the council’s decision-making process.

The Action Squad then presented its recommendations to the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). The HPC enthusiastically supported the ideas and directed staff to pass this vote of support to the council. The HPC’s vote was never forwarded to the council for reasons that have never been made clear to the NDDC or the HPC.

With the results of their efforts with the city uncertain, the NDDC focused on trying to get the downtown trash receptacles repainted and repaired. After two years of working with multiple city officials, this $4,000 expenditure was finally completed, and nicely done at that. From the NDDC’s perspective, this is how the system should work for an obvious need of modest cost, but in two weeks, not two years.

Unfortunately, this was a rare exception to the rule. The process worked very differently on most everything else.

In response to the Action Squad’s recommendations, city staff announced that a consultant would be hired to develop comprehensive strategies for downtown. One of the final pieces of this particular consulting contract was to gather images of the good and the bad in downtown. A number of participants in the Action Squad’s efforts good-naturedly repeated their exercise.

Once these pictures were posted at a consultant-hosted meeting at the Archer House, city staff let it be known for the first time that there were residual tax increment financing proceeds that could only be used for downtown improvement projects. There was to be between $2 and $4 million over 10 years, with between $250,000 and $500,000 to be spent on projects each year.

The first year, the consultants and city staff came up with crosswalk pavers surrounding Bridge Square. The Downtown Improvement Group, consisting of the mayor and the two downtown council members, supported their recommendation and we got $187,000 worth of paver projects.

City staff then announced that a consultant would be hired to conduct an inventory of downtown elements. The inventory would include light posts, benches and railings as well as bike racks, newspaper corrals and way-finding signage. The final report was an impressive spiral-bound document that included pictures of possible products as well as design themes favored by suburban communities.

In the second year — 2005 — of the downtown improvement projects, a new drinking fountain was returned to Bridge Square. Benches and flower boxes were ordered. Perhaps they’ll be installed before the first snow. City staff also announced that a consultant would be hired to come up with a Streetscape Plan to guide future downtown improvement projects.

On Thursday, the plan was finally presented to the public. There are two concepts, the String of Pearls and the Rhythm of Plazas. The overall theme is “Hospitality” and both concepts include “whimsical elements.” Frankly, I’d prefer a simple design that supports a seven-day-a-week working downtown.

The city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and three years to confirm what the Action Squad, through the volunteer efforts of citizens, found back in 2002: The downtown would benefit from the installation of bike racks, newspaper corrals and way-finding signage.

People wonder why I get so upset about this stuff. I wonder why people don’t get so upset about this stuff.

Think about what downtown would look like if over the past three years we’d spent money on bike racks, newspaper corrals and way-finding signage instead of consultants.