Julie Townsend, executive director of the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority, is continuing her campaign to bring back historic charm while adding family friendly fun to the city’s center.
“We produce about 88 events and activities and, of course, we will increase that,” Townsend said during a presentation to the Lakeland City Commission on Monday. “This year we’re going to be adding an app that will provide us the opportunity to have scavenger hunts and other fun activities throughout the year that keeps people engaged and coming downtown for something other than a street-closure-type event.”
Townsend’s report touched on:
- Continued work with the Homeless Coalition of Polk County
- The possibility of returning some downtown streets to their original brick
- Re-instituting a lunchtime Squeeze shuttle service for downtown visitors
- Developing vacant, city-owned properties downtown
Townsend said LDDA events generate about 275,000 visitors each year to the core of downtown; the organization’s $1 million budget is funded by two extra mils on downtown property owners’ tax bills.
Working with The Homeless Coalition
Townsend said the LDDA and Lakeland Police Department’s Lt. Joe Parker have been working with the Homeless Coalition of Polk County to come up with a viable solution to helping the homeless people who gather daily in Munn Park. Many churches and humanitarian groups bring food to the park, which the city has been discouraging.
“It’s a barge, not a speedboat, and we’re working towards working with the groups who want to provide services to our homeless community,” Townsend said. “We want to work with them towards solutions, so we’re headed in that direction and so I feel good about the progress that we’ve made so far.”
Munn Park is at the center of an ongoing downtown revitalization effort and an area that has become more vibrant in recent years. City officials are talking about a welcome center, restrooms, various play activities for children and adults throughout the park.
But city officials, concerned residents and LDDA board members say plans for a revitalized Munn Park cannot move forward until the city genuinely confronts the longstanding issue of people experiencing homelessness loitering on park benches and the related issue of caring for and feeding them.
Townsend has said in the past that she doesn’t like to call it a homeless problem, but instead a behavior problem.
“Arresting people over and over again for their behaviors is not the answer,” she said at an LDDA Board meeting in April.
City Manager Shawn Sherrouse has been quietly asking the groups to stop their feedings in the park because of sanitation issues. Townsend has said business owners text her photographs of piles of human waste they have found by their doors.
The city and Talbot House Ministries have been in talks about reopening Talbot House’s Day Center to provide a shady place for people to sit, charge cellphones and have a meal.
Lakeland Police have also been handing out trespass citations for those who don’t move along when asked. At a City Commission retreat in the last year, there was also talk about providing permits for a limited number of feeds per year in specific places.
Ways to ensure that the downtown corridor is pedestrian friendly are also being discussed. Moving multiple intersections from street lights to stop signs has been a success, Townsend said.
“It’s being able to move through faster going slower is what really is measurable,” Mayor Bill Mutz said.
Another way of adding another level of safety could be removing the asphalt off of the original brick streets, Townsend said. The look would be charming, but the washboard effect would slow down drivers, as it does on residential streets in several historic districts.
“We would really like to investigate the costs of the overall long-term benefits of restoring the brick streets on all of the streets that you can, starting with South Kentucky or Kentucky in general,” Townsend said, adding that she’d also like to explore making the crosswalks colorful, fun and decorative. “Slowing down traffic was a priority last year and is an ongoing priority. The downtown core must be more pedestrian friendly.”
Commissioner Bill Read asked if the bricks last longer than the asphalt.
“That is my understanding, that Public Works has told me that there’s a lot less maintenance over time with the bricks than there is with the asphalt,” Townsend said. “The conversations that I’ve had in the past were that the initial costs of ripping up the asphalt and re-leveling the bricks is a higher cost than that immediate resurfacing job would be, but over time there’s a cost savings.”
More Squeeze, please
There is also talk of bringing back the Lunch Squeeze – an eight-seater golf cart that the Citrus Connection transit service provides to shuttle residents around downtown, which frees up parking. The Squeeze currently operates on weekend evenings and, in addition to shuttling visitors around, allows residents to imbibe without worrying about a DUI.
The Lunch Squeeze would allow people to park in a designated spot – possibly near The Joinery – and take the shuttle to downtown restaurants along Kentucky, Tennessee and Main streets.
“We would like to see it run Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and around the lunch hour with the fixed route that is tight around a hotel with frequency and consistency,” Townsend said, adding they could move people from offices and hotels in downtown around the core area of eateries. “We can also invite visitors to park in a certain location and feel that and recognize that they’ll have certainty in getting from that sort of remote parking lot to the core of downtown for lunch.”
Citrus Connection Executive Director Tom Phillips said the Friday and Saturday night Squeeze averages 200 to 250 rides per night, and about 150 to 200 people use the Squeeze for the Saturday Downtown Farmers Curb Market.
“We are excited to partner with the LDDA on the return of the Lunch Squeeze,” Phillips said in a text message. “We intend to apply all the lessons from the wildly successful weekend and event service to a lunchtime relaunch. Coupled with the new pedestrian-firendly four-way stops downtown, we are going to ‘crush’ it!”
Phillips said the biggest lesson he learned the first go-round is that “you can’t be everything to everyone. We’ve got to focus on a small footprint and get people in and out quickly.”
Finally, Townsend said she hopes she and the city can dig out a map that was developed in the last five year, showing all of the city-owned parcels downtown that could be developed.
Townsend said she and then-Community Redevelopment Agency Director Nicole Travis mapped out all of the various city-owned properties in downtown and what those highest and best uses would be. She’d like to reopen that conversation. She hoping the city can fill in the surface parking lots that “disrupt the pedestrian flow and the retail flow in downtown. We want more retail.”
Townsend’s comments come at a time when Publix is discussing expanding its footprint downtown with a technology campus. It has bought the old Maas Brothers/Burdines/Watkins/FedEx building and plans to hire hundreds more information technology employees to work there.
Apartments have been built along North Bay Street and Lake Mirror, and on Orange Street and East Lake Morton Drive, with more going up in the triangle at Sikes and George Jenkins boulevards and plans for apartments on the north shore of Lake Wire.
Read also brought up the fact that the Oak Street parking lot currently utilized by McKeel Central teachers and administrators will soon have a building on it. Townsend said when that happens, they will simply have to walk to another parking lot or garage.
Sherrouse reminded the commissioners that there had been discussions about possibly closing off streets around Munn Park.
“We’re still in the process of the redesign of Munn Park and so where we expand sidewalks, we might need to, you know, align and balance with where those final recommendations may be,” Sherrouse said. “You’ll remember at our strategic planning session, when the commission expressed some desire to potentially close off some of the streets around Munn Park and so that would certainly be something we would need to consider for more expanded sidewalks.”
Townsend and Sherrouse mentioned a parking study that has been underway for awhile.
“The parking study has been a long process. We’ve worked with several different consultants and vendors. We’re very close to presenting that,” Sherrouse said. “We have actually had that teed up to discuss with commissioners at one-on-ones and, for various different reasons, we have kind of slid it back for a couple of months now, but that should be coming for you here in the fall.”
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