Whether it’s more public bathrooms or parking spaces, or a way to minimize the number of vacant businesses, the first step to helping Stoughton’s historic downtown is learning what the problem is. Or if there’s a problem at all.

The Downtown Revitalization subcommittee, formed in February as an offshoot of the Redevelopment Authority, has enlisted the help of Ayres Associates, an architectural and engineering services firm based in Madison, to create an economic development plan to help guide investment into the downtown.

The committee was formed by long-term resident Sharon Mason-Boersma and former alder and current RDA member Denise Duranczyk earlier this year. Since its formation, which was prompted after Mason-Boersma talked to several downtown businesses about how they feel about that area, the committee has begun community outreach and identified the next steps to help get Ayres as much information as possible to help create a plan before the year ends.

“We’re trying to get a clear idea of what the issues are in downtown, and also what the strengths are, so we can build on those things,” Duranczyk told the Hub. “We’re going to take all of that information, along with the data that the consultant is going to look at, and start to put together an economic development plan, some of it short term and some long term.”

The next several weeks will be focused on gathering community input. The committee has identified a series of stakeholders who will be asked to participate in interviews and focus groups to get a range of feedback and ideas to help guide future conversations.

During the last committee meeting earlier this month, the group and consultants discussed creating a survey to be shared among Stoughton residents and people living in surrounding communities. They also agreed to hold a public input meeting to gather information about what’s important to the downtown, characterize what people think of the area and why business owners set up shop there.

“It’s more about gathering a sense of their perception of downtown, their expectations of this downtown plan and what they envision as a successful downtown plan outcome,” Ayres landscape architect Jake Blue said during the July 2 meeting. “We do our best work when we get good feedback from our client base and our community base.”

Steps for outreach

The public input meeting has yet to be scheduled, but there are ways for the community to get involved before that first opportunity.

Duranczyk said committee members will reach out to eight key groups for individual interviews with representatives from each: retail businesses, service businesses, restaurants and entertainment, riverfront redevelopment master developer, local officials, the arts community, event coordinators and major downtown employers such as the City of Stoughton and the Stoughton Area School District.

Beyond that group, the committee is looking for people interested in participating in smaller focus groups.

“What we’re trying to do is find a different group of people to be interviewed in the focus group so we get as broad of opinions as possible,” Duranczyk said.

After spending a few months gathering community input, the Ayres team will create a plan with suggestions for policies and plans that could potentially be put in place early next year. Part of those plans, based on early conversations, could include a downtown business association and tools, like kiosks with maps and information about downtown.

“An economic development plan takes time,” Duranczyk said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”

Why Ayres?

The committee decided to pursue working with Ayres after interviewing two different consulting firms.

Ayre’s experience working almost exclusively with communities similar in size to Stoughton, as well as a particular focus on historic downtown areas, made the choice “a no brainer,” Duranczyk said.

Two representatives spoke during the introductory meeting with the committee, Blue and Diane Williams, a market analyst who has almost 30 years of economic consulting experience.

“Talking about their goals and hearing about what they’ve done in other communities, it really fit everything we were looking for,” Duranczyk said.

Ayres has previously worked in places including Eau Claire, Beloit, Sturtevant and Altoona to “redevelop while preserving their authenticity and sense of place,” their proposal letter states.

They shared what worked well in those communities, such as strategies for how to gather feedback and how plans were implemented at a city level.

“We have to learn how things get done in Stoughton, so in order for those kinds of structures to succeed, it has to be fit into how things get done here,” Williams said at the meeting.

Contact Amber Levenhagen at amber.levenhagen@wcinet.com.