St. Cloud leaders want to catch a bit of the magic that has brought about a downtown resurgence in places like Sanford and Winter Garden, hiring the GAI Consultants team that helped spark a revitalization of those communities and are now well into a city-wide master planning process they're calling "Envision St. Cloud."
Community Solutions Group (CSG) Senior Director Peter Sechler on Wednesday recapped the first two phases of the Envision process that kicked off in the spring.
"We know today St. Cloud is kind of growing within a constellation of a whole series of other things happening in the region," he said. "Our goal is to create a near- and long-term vision."
City staff, residents and business owners joined the consultants in May for walking tours of downtown and the St. Cloud lakefront. This week the team hosted a three-day design workshop to formulate observations and comments into the incubus of a plan, including goals and recommendations.
"We need as many ways as possible to see the community through the eyes of the people who live here," Sechler said. "It really helps if we can do that with people who are engaged. They know the history of why things developed the way they did, and they know the social context."
He told GrowthSpotter that Downtown St. Cloud isn't all that different from many of the small towns in the region, and it has some advantages -- like a street grid that could accommodate an entire downtown district, instead of just a Main Street.
Such a turnaround typically takes about 10 years.
"In 1996, Winter Garden was really disinvested," said Sechler -- consultant-speak for a dead or dying downtown. "By 2006, big changes had taken place. Now fast-forward to 2016 and it's exploding out there."
CSG worked with Sanford on its master plan in 2000, and the city immediately launched the first major public investment with the redevelopment of 1st Street and the Riverwalk. Now the city is attracting craft breweries, live-work spaces and a $50 million mixed-use project.
"At the same time, Willow Tree Cafe opened and became a destination restaurant," Sechler said. "So there was a confluence of vision, public investment and key business owners. You need people on the private side who are really motivated, and you need quality investment."
Sechler said if the city gets funding to rebuild the downtown infrastructure, it should redesign the on-street parking and sidewalk spaces to make the area more practical. He suggested using a concept similar to Sanford, where street trees are planted at grade in the parking area instead of the sidewalks.
That design expands the public space and allows the trees to provide shade without detracting from the narrow sidewalks or existing buildings.
The downtown vision was only one element of the presentation. The consultants also recommended changes for the city's Lakeview Park, which he said lacks shade, seating and other embellishments. The park could benefit from some more thoughtful branding, and a better connection to downtown.
"I don't want to be critical of the lakefront, because it is a success," he said. "We actually think situationally, it's a little disorganized and it could be better programmed. The lake views are pretty, but it's a pretty spartan environment."
The city-wide master plan also will address ways to improve neighborhood connectivity, particularly with a more robust trail network. Sechler said the city needs to get serious about improving the pedestrian and bike access for residents.
"You just finished a trails plan," he said. "You have to prioritize and decide what's most important. We definitely have some thoughts about some key access points; 17th Street is an important road running parallel to U.S. 192 that connects to the schools, and it doesn't have a sidewalk or a bike lane or street tree."
The master plan will also address issues that affect St. Cloud's outer suburbs, and their connection to communities along Narcoossee Road and the eastern shore of Lake Tohopekaliga.
"It's perfectly fine that there's some suburban areas that aren't so close to school and grocery," Sechler said. "People have made that choice and it's a perfectly fine thing. The question is do we have a network of key roads, livable ways to help you circulate and navigate your community? If you don't get control of some of these streets now, it's going to be too late later."