FAIRBANKS - Regular customers sometimes tell restaurant owner Joan Busam what she already knows: urban sprawl has left the historic downtown Fairbanks area with a vacuum that, despite recent improvements, has yet to be filled.
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"It's like a great big doughnut," Busam said, noting that large retail stores have lured most of the area's new development to the northern and southern edges of town. "All these stores are all around ... we have some raw edges around here."
The downtown district, where Busam opened her bistro l'assiette de Pomegranate about five years ago, could use a small grocery-style store, she said. Artists' shops wouldn't hurt either. A few improvements could increase foot traffic and benefit the stores that have already set up shop, she said.
"The thing I hear most often from new customers is, 'I didn't even know you were here because I don't come downtown much. I don't live in this part of town,"' Busman said. "They still have trouble - they can't find it."
It's opinions like those from Busam and her customers that a group developing a comprehensive urban design plan want to hear.
Last week, the group, which has titled its downtown planning project "Vision Fairbanks," cemented a venue for a kickoff public meeting Jan. 17.
The meeting, which will be held at the Westmark Hotel & Conference Center, is meant to let residents offer suggestions and hear directly from the people leading the planning project, said Emma Wilson, who directs the Downtown Association of Fairbanks.
The Vision Fairbanks plan aims to incorporate urban design, economic development and land-use components into a guiding blueprint for the city's core. The project will ultimately focus on a handful of key elements, Wilson said. But it's too soon to identify what those key elements will be, she said - that's what the first leg of the one-year planning process, and particularly next month's meeting, are all about.
The project's task force includes local transportation and land-use planners and officials from the city of Fairbanks and the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Working with them is the Portland-based design firm Crandall Arambula, which specializes in helping cities redesign and reinvent themselves.
The firm has identified a three-step planning process that incorporates public involvement, research into past planning efforts, design and an implementation component.
First, Wilson said, organizers need to answer a central question: If the community had greater control over the development of the city's core, what would it collectively want to see happen?
She declined to offer other suggestions, preferring instead to leave the question open-ended as the group gathers ideas over the next few months.
The downtown community might benefit with the addition of a couple of large-scale retail "anchors," said Mike Miles, who along with his wife, Cynde Caywood, owns Cynde's Boutique and Raven Mad gift shop in the downtown Co-op Plaza. Miles identified an old movie theater on Second Avenue as a great spot for shop similar to stores located at the entrance to Denali National Park.
"Competition is a good thing," said Caywood, who has owned the boutique for three decades. More shopping opportunities mean more shoppers, she said. "If people can only go to one or two places, they're not going to come downtown."
Busam wonders whether a comprehensive plan can gain steam without the involvement of a number of downtown land owners, some of whom she said have been "apathetic" when it comes to community involvement. But she hopes the Vision Fairbanks plan turns into a vehicle with enough momentum to convince most of the downtown community to participate.
"How do you get the landlords to work with you, and how do you get the (Fairbanks City) Council to work with this?" she said in an interview Friday. "There's got to be a feasible plan, financially, to attract these outside businesses. And I think that's part of the job of this group.
"Everybody has to get on board to make this happen."
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