Retreat allows for in-depth City Council discussions

Published 4:43 pm Friday, April 14, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

— Part one of three parts —

City Council members and officials came together earlier this month for City Council’s annual retreat to discuss broad topics such as downtown restoration, affordable housing, solar facilities and the 2045 Comprehensive Plan.
The April 6-7 retreat allows for more in-depth discussions on issues facing the city.
Mayor Michael D. Duman said the two-day meeting had an “optimistic” atmosphere.
“One of the challenges being on City Council is due to (the Freedom of Information Act-FOIA) requirements, you cannot talk to but one member at a time,” Duman said. “It’s very hard with those restrictions to be able to have a discussion with everyone at one time, to have a meeting of the minds, if you will, and being able to have an open discussion.”
He said it takes something like a retreat to make it happen.
“We can do it on a limited basis in a work session before council meetings,” Duman said. “But to really sit down and delve into some subjects to where we have ample time to discuss those topics, we have ample time for the staff to present them and respond to them and a lot of what comes out of the retreat is we’re able to provide the city manager and staff with some direction as to where we want to go on issues.”
Duman said council didn’t resolve everything.
“We were able to obtain information and then based on what we received, we were able to provide direction to the manager and staff to come back to us at a later date so we can actually address those issues and come up with a resolution,” he explained.
One of Thursday’s topics was the Downtown Progress Report and bringing new strategies to help the downtown area flourish. Duman discussed the recommendations being brought to amend current requirements, a process that has been worked on “for several years.”
“We still want to maintain the unique character of downtown,” he said. “We want to be able to protect our architecture and the look of downtown but at the same time, some of our requirements actually made it prohibitive for individuals, financially, to invest in downtown,” he said. “So such things as materials where in the past, we had only allowed maybe wood for windows and the only way to address that would be to remove an old window, and try to repair it and get it back. There might be roofs where you had to use a slate roof which is very expensive.”
With the materials that are available now, Duman said, what’s going to happen is they’re going to look at some other material that can be used that can be much less expensive, would hold up longer, would be energy-efficient, but would maintain the appearance.
Other topics Duman and council members discussed new gateway signage for parking directions as well as directions to historic downtown, cultural arts center and visitors center. Likewise, they talked about identifying historical neighborhoods, the return of the downtown business association, and what the amenities that citizens want to see in the area.
“Some of these things, we need to make it more inviting to go downtown, we need to let folks know that they have ‘arrived’ in downtown,” he said. “I think the wayfinding will be a big part of it.”
Duman said they also talked about what people want to see downtown.
“They want to see more unique shops and they want to see eateries. They want to feel safe when they’re downtown, all these things are of utmost importance,” Duman said. “We even discussed the Economic Development Department reaching out to some owners of vacant properties [in] downtown, especially on East Washington Street”
The difficulty of trying to renovate those is that there may be five or six different owners in each one of those side-by-side buildings, he said, adding that a lot of them are empty and some have absentee owners.
“They are going to reach out to owners and see if they are willing to sell and then feastably put some property together to where we can market them to the outside and maybe even have the city get involved in purchasing some of them.,” the mayor said.
Duman stressed the importance of code enforcement and addressing the vacant buildings to help provide beautification for downtown, including the East Washington Street area.
“We talked about code enforcement and we talked about vacant buildings. If we don’t do that to get particular areas cleaned up if you will, to encourage further private investment,” Duman said. “Peanut Crossing is a perfect example, that they’re getting ready to do another expansion there. And we’ve made some allowances, we’ve had investors come to us during council meetings and they have requested a variance from what would normally require than to adhere to all the new ordinances.”
Basically, if there’s a structure and the owner is going to spend more than 50% of its value, then they lose the ‘grandfathering’, which could be the setbacks on the front of the back or some other architectural guidelines.
“In the last few years when we’ve had individuals come to us who want to invest in downtown, we’ve made those allowances to try to make it more palpable to make these things happen,” Duman said.

Email newsletter signup