Gaylord’s downtown area has long relied on the friendliness of its people and quaint “Alpine Village” theme to draw visitors to the downtown area, while providing locals with a neighborly place to shop and do business.
But over the past several years, downtown Gaylord has been suffering, both economically and aesthetically. So the Gaylord Renaissance Plan was formulated, an idea that’s actually been in the works since the late 1990s, but is only now starting to gain a foothold.
Two advocates of the plan, Gaylord Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Justin Burchett and Executive Director for the Otsego County Economic Alliance Jeff Ratcliffe, outline what’s next for the Alpine Village.
KRISTI KATES FOR EXPRESS: When was the idea for the Gaylord Renaissance Plan first formulated, what was the impetus behind the decision to begin developing the plan, and what is your agency’s role in the project?
JUSTIN BURCHETT: While the Gaylord Renaissance Committee was formed only around two to three years ago to seriously delve into creating a solution to our problem of a struggling downtown, in reality this project has been in waiting for much longer.
The City of Gaylord Master Plan from 1996 has an objective that reads, “Encourage the creative design and re-design of neighborhoods both within and beyond City boundaries that enhance desirability by including sidewalks, bike paths, pedestrian ways, open spaces, parks, and playgrounds, and street design, that results in more even distribution of traffic on public streets.”
The Gaylord DDA approved the creation of the Gaylord Renaissance Committee to investigate the problem in our downtown and develop a solution.
JEFF RATCLIFFE: The idea of creating a pedestrian-oriented downtown dates to probably around 2006. The city manager, Joe Duff, proposed using a “road diet” to accomplish the goal of slowing traffic. We realized that we still needed to move a portion of the commercial traffic out of downtown and onto a previously planned alternate route south of Gaylord that was still to be funded and constructed.
By 2009 we had completed the raising of I-75 and reconnecting of Milbocker and Mc- Coy roads. With closeout of the I-75 crossing project at the beginning of 2011, we began to plan and package the funding needed to complete the alternate commercial route.
With leadership from Jack Thompson at the University Center, we started the process to plan the improvements to the downtown. By March of 2012 we had put together the Renaissance Committee, raised the money necessary to prepare a concept plan and began the public input process. The Alliance facilitated the process and served to chair the Renaissance Committee.
EXPRESS: What are some of the ways you hope the GRP will help the growth of the Gaylord downtown community and the surrounding areas?
BURCHETT: Downtown Gaylord is the heart of our community. Those involved with the project recognize the importance of vibrant downtowns for continued economic growth. Highly educated and skilled youth today have the opportunity to work just about anywhere, so providing a high quality of life is paramount to talent attraction.
Plenty of research shows the trend of people moving to downtowns that have the urban amenities people enjoy. Companies have to consider the quality of life they will offer employees before deciding to open up shop in an area.
Everything points towards the need for a vibrant downtown to maintaining growth and that is what this project will help create. It is just a piece of the puzzle, but a necessary piece nonetheless.
There are huge possibilities in Gaylord as we are the best geographically situated area for new business in northern Michigan in terms of equidistant travel.
RATCLIFFE: The goal of the Renaissance Committee is to change the dynamic of the downtown from one that is oriented to vehicles to one that is oriented to people. By creating a slower, quieter downtown with places for people to linger, we will be able to create a healthy, vibrant downtown district that will be conducive to restaurants, cafes, pubs, and specialty retail shops, creating a destination for both locals and visitors.
EXPRESS: Would you please describe to us some of the specific elements that are part of the plan? What are some of the features you think will be the most striking for visitors, and the most welcome for residents?
BURCHETT: The most important element of the plan is probably the least flashy: a move from five lanes of traffic to three lanes for two blocks on M-32 in the heart of our central business district. This element (the aforementioned “road diet”) is primarily a means of providing a more pedestrian-friendly area with wider sidewalks, a grace lane, and safety islands to give pedestrians a safe haven halfway across the street, and a general calming effect.
In addition to the safety aspects, the most visually striking updates will be the gateways that welcome visitors into downtown, as well as updates to the courthouse lawn. The lawn has up to now been little more than grass and trees. Current plans call for an interactive fountain, recirculating stream, and a natural gas fire pit for use during special events.
There will also be landscaping, creating more of a park-like atmosphere. Combined with the decreased noise levels, the lawn will be able to function as a hang out destination for residents and visitors.
EXPRESS: How will the plan affect downtown businesses? Will they be expected to revitalize their storefronts, as well? What kind of reception are you getting from local business on the project?
BURCHETT: Our research shows that downtowns that have undergone similar redevelopments have noticed a 30 percent increase in retail sales. Initially, construction poses a concern for area businesses, but if we learn from other areas that have carried out redevelopment projects we should be able to minimize the impacts of construction.
Combined with the four previous years of façade grants that have impacted over 20 buildings in downtown, and the approximately eight more projects in the hopper for 2014, downtown Gaylord will look stunning to anyone that hasn’t peered on it for some time.
The vast majority of feedback received from downtown businesses has been favorable towards the project. Even most of those that question the project realize that something has to be done to improve the business climate downtown. When it comes right down to it, change can be a difficult pill to swallow, but most store owners are willing to give it a try as they have seen their sales slump year after year.
RATCLIFFE: The plan is designed to improve the viability of existing businesses and attract new ones. We have and will continue to work with building owners to make façade improvements. We have completed 25 so far and have another seven lined up.
Overall we have had a good reception from local businesses towards the project.
EXPRESS: What have some of the challenges been as far as coordinating both funding and community support for the GRP?
BURCHETT: The most difficult part of building community support has been educating the public and getting them to ask the questions they need answered. There have been instances of people on the Renaissance Committee running into someone that says they are adamantly against the plan. When asked, you find out that person may have never attended one of our open houses, haven’t seen the plan, and have been subject to misinformation. Once those people see the plan they realize that they actually like most of what they see in it.
The biggest concern is generally money, but when people learn that there are no intentions to request a millage or tax increases, that fear dissipates as well. After anticipated grant revenues we forecast a $1 million gap that is going to have to be made up by organizational and individual contributions.
Some people think that is an impossible feat, but we’re optimistic that more people are willing to invest in their community than these people realize. The Renaissance Plan is the most exciting project to take place in Gaylord since the adoption of the Alpine theme in the mid-60’s, which revitalized downtown at that time. In many ways, this is phase two of the project that began way back then.
RATCLIFFE: We have an approximate $4.5 million project cost. We will be seeking to tap a number of state grant programs that are designed for this type of project as well as raising money locally.
EXPRESS: And finally, what is the timeline? When will work begin, when will results of the project be visible, and how soon do you think locals will reap the benefits of increased interest in downtown Gaylord?
BURCHETT: The goal is to have all the funding in place by the end of 2014 and then complete construction over a period of four to six months in 2015. This could potentially be extended to 2016, but for now the Renaissance Committee is keeping their eyes set on 2015.
I believe that the results of the project will become visible prior to the completion of construction. There are two public hearings coming up on the project in March which will either give the green light to go forward once we secure funding or send us back to the drawing board. Assuming the green light is granted, a smart investor is going to realize that the best time to get in on the action is now. The first person that opens up a brewpub that offers live music in our downtown is more than likely going to see huge dividends in the coming years.
There is plenty of room for more diverse restaurants and interesting boutiques.
Those that wait run the risk of fighting for a limited number of prized properties in the crossroads of northern Michigan, an area surrounded by countless recreational opportunities. If you look back pre-recession, Otsego County had the second fastest rate of development in Michigan. This project could help to get things rolling again.