Stoughtonites want a vibrant, accessible downtown filled with prospering businesses, according to input provided to the city’s Downtown Revitalization Subcommittee.
The committee, which spun off from the city’s Redevelopment Authority in February, is continuing to develop a downtown investment plan, based partly on a report it expects to get in late winter. After holding interviews and focus groups with downtown business owners over the summer, the committee moved into a more public phase in August.
The group received 1,110 responses from its downtown preference survey – 83.6% of which were from the Stoughton area – and welcomed over a hundred participants to an open house on Oct. 1. To review all of the feedback, the committee met with consulting engineering firm Ayres Associates on Nov. 5.
“I’ve heard from all of you as well as others in the downtown district about recent (business) vacancies and the concerns associated with that,” Ayres market analyst Diane Williams said at the meeting. “A lot of the strategies that we (will) ultimately develop are going to be addressing that issue on a number of different levels.”
Ayres also recommended changing the look and feel of downtown, increasing dining options and emphasizing consumer “convenience.”
“It’s really about making things easy for the consumer, whether they be a resident, or a visitor or employee to have fun, to make purchases and to discover new things about your town,” Williams said.
After Ayres completes its report of these findings by Nov. 19, it will begin drafting and reviewing concepts for the investment plan around December. The Downtown Revitalization Subcommittee is planning to hold a second public open house in January to go over these concepts.
Ayres is slated to finish its final report for the investment plan in February or March. The report would include its findings, a project summary and objectives for downtown planning and design decisions.
Survey: Experiences, dining
The largest share of responses, 37.1%, was from ages 25-44. Ayres project manager Jacob Blue said this age group prefers “experiences” over tangible purchases.
“They lived through 2008 and saw homeowners go upside down,” he said. “This as a population tends not to own as many vehicles – they have other modes of transportation or they’re using ride-share mechanisms. The idea of developing experiences to be able to tap into the “green,” that becomes incredibly important with that population of people out there.”
Committee member Peter McMasters, who owns Spry Whimsy Fiber Arts at 168 W. Main St, said newly opened Gemini Games just across the street from his business is a good example of an “experience.”
“Yes, they sell games, but you can go in and just play (the games), you can have an experience, you can spend as much time as you want, (and) have a beer while you’re there on certain nights,” he said.
The survey also revealed strong desires for downtown gathering places and an almost universal preference for casual dining, Williams said. Online purchasing was also found to be routine for almost all of the respondents.
“It’s not necessarily about getting people to goods,” Williams said. “It’s really about getting goods to people.”
Most survey respondents said they visit downtown for 30 minutes to 2 hours, which means they visit the area to stay for a while, rather than just running errands, Williams said.
Open house: Parking and seating
The open house at the Lagaret reception hall featured six feedback stations where guests could place stickers on preferred downtown images and phrases.
For a primary vision of downtown, 60 percent of participants voted for adding new businesses. The favored value for the district was “vibrant,” with several people hoping for a more family-friendly, welcoming downtown that would be easy to access and navigate.
Many participants also voiced a desire for free parking in downtown. The city originally introduced 2-hour parking because business owners and tenants were taking up parking spaces for long periods of time, McMasters said.
“A number of other communities do an interim measure for the holidays,” she said. “If there is a way to do a ticketing hiatus during that time, it may be worth asking the question.”
The open house revealed a need for better sidewalk seating and greater pedestrian space that would be separate from the parking. When considering artscape, many people wanted local artists to install murals throughout downtown.
“There was more of an interest in an eclectic expression of art, something that is of the place, of the community of Stoughton,” Blue said.
Outdoor dining was a popular request, while some people wanted the presence of a downtown grocery or food trucks. There was also a preference for small-footprint residential developments, such as lofts and condominiums.
Ayers: Updating look and feel
Ayres provided several recommendations for the committee’s investment plan and identified a variety of options for implementing them.
Those included having businesses extend their hours of operation and emphasize consumer convenience, which would include partnering with delivery services and larger retail platforms. Businesses should also provide an online experience consisting of social media efforts and an easy to use, mobile-enabled website, the firm concluded.
Ayres also stressed the importance of facilitating a variety of occupancy formats in downtown, including temporary uses, short-term leases, collectives and shared offices.
A plan for attracting new businesses would include establishing incentives, such as building improvements and the prospect of customers from new residential developments. To focus on overall business growth, the city should identify opportunities for recruiting, retaining and expanding businesses, and should organize “succession resources” for helping owners pass off their businesses.
For potential dining enterprises, the committee should determine the interest of local “restaurateurs” and identify suitable spaces for the businesses.
Ayres also provided several ideas for changing the “look” of downtown, starting with a reinvestment into downtown structures. To help make the streets seem more lively and active, the city could increase parking time and introduce more outdoor events, such as homecoming activities or “long table” community meals.
Possible artworks should be diverse, one-of-a-kind expressions and could include temporary installations.
Finally, Ayres suggested a change in the “climate” of downtown with the inclusion of family-based, limited-time “pop up” experiences. Examples would include block dance parties, outdoor movies, table tennis tournaments and a downtown circus.
Blue also said that Stoughton is now more than its Norwegian roots, with a segment of the population looking for different characteristics in their downtown. Further guidance on changing the “feel” for the district included more night/evening events for people ages 25-44 and making downtown a safer and an easier place to live.