With vision, downtown could attract more pedestrians

Published 8:09 am Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Mardi Gras seemed to be about perfect, near as I could tell. The weather was great, the floats were attractive and everyone seemed in good cheer.

My only complaint is that it’s over.

I realize of course that it would be impractical to host throngs of pedestrians downtown every weekend, but such a pretty, attractive space ought to be used. Rubbing shoulders with our neighbors and walking block after block is good for the body and the spirit, and so again, it seems a shame we don’t see more of that.

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At present our city leaders are seeking public input for ideas about the city’s future so, that being the case, I figure I’d suggest a few things that could bring more people downtown.

First, public art. Rapid City, South Dakota seems an unlikely spot for hip public art, but their art alley is both a riot of color and fun and also a product of the residents. Stretching several city blocks, area artists have covered — from top to bottom —walls of shops along a particular alley. I don’t know whether the first of the spray painted art was technically allowed by the city (my guess is, it was not) but today the colorful abstract walls create a fun, surreal environment that the city now uses to host small festivals and gatherings. The result is a legitimate attraction that the city advertises on its website and, again, walking through an alley surrounded on all sides by wildly imaginative figures is about as close to a public fun house as one can get, and the result is a welcome surprise in a rather remote and otherwise staid city.

The brilliant thing about using local artists is, of course, it’s cheap but also the art has local relevance. It shows a community has talent, imagination and a desire to express itself.

Franklin, Tennessee is more conservative minded than Rapid City, but their downtown is no less a hotbed of socializing and a destination for tourists who want to spend a weekend in a bedroom community outside of Nashville surrounded by horse ranches and rolling hills. Their downtown doesn’t feature any wild art, but they do have plenty of signage, which promotes foot traffic. Historical markers —even unofficial city-sponsored signs — and helpful directions to destinations painted on the sides of buildings — give visitors a reason to keep walking and they provide a sense of history that proves the place is authentic and worth a visitor’s time. The more foot traffic a downtown area has, the safer it becomes as those who would otherwise create problems — like vandalism, for instance — tend to retreat into the shadows.

The problem, of course, is attracting people downtown.

Sustaining daily foot traffic might be difficult, but sustaining regular foot traffic is not only possible but it would not be terribly costly, either.

A farmer’s market each Saturday or Sunday morning at the Pavilion could go a long way toward bringing out families. Throw an acoustic musician in the mix, add some shelter puppies up for adoption and some arts, crafts and truck foods and pretty soon you’ve got a regular feature that could bring people downtown each weekend from April through September.

Of course, to do this right the Chamber or another nonprofit group would need to take the reigns in order to secure insurance and whatnot, but a farmer’s market plan isn’t difficult to prepare and once the momentum picks up, the market routine should sustain itself.

One benefit of having a downtown that is not heavily trafficked is the potential for walkways and bikeways. Considering the width of the streets, it would not be difficult for the city to create walking and biking pathways, which would attract more pedestrians and cyclists. These efforts would also help rebrand Port Arthur as a city that cares about public health and offers amenities to younger professionals who would likely take advantage of these things. Add a few more amenities at the parks for adults—say, a disc golf course—and pretty soon we could see the parks and downtown get quite a bit more use from families as well as single adults.

The idea, of course, is to make our downtown as attractive as it can be for the greatest number of people. Luckily, the raw materials—beautiful houses, wide streets, an attractive waterfront and parks—are already there. Now all we need is the vision and the drive.