Story last updated at 3:12 p.m. Thursday, September 26, 2002

Proponents of town square unveil outline for council
by Carey James
Staff Writer

Three years of work and planning on the proposed Town Square Project got a public airing Monday night.

The Town Square working group presented to the Homer City Council a general plan for Homer's central business district that included more roads tying the district together, more parking, improved pedestrian access and room for development in the center of town between Pioneer Avenue and the Sterling Highway.

The details, said the working group, are for the council to decide.

"What's driving this is what a wonderful place Homer is now, and what a more wonderful place it could become," said Chris Beck, an urban planner from Anchorage hired to look at the Town Square idea through the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust.

Beck, along with economist Steve Colt, told the council that planning today for the future of the central business district would likely bring about increased economic activity in the city's core. The analysts predicted increased sales tax revenue, employment opportunities and business investment as a result.

One way those increases would likely come about is by giving tourists an alternative to the Homer Spit shopping and sightseeing experience. With the Pratt Museum on one corner of the Central Business District and the Alaska Islands and Oceans Visitors Center under construction, the planners suggested adding a third attraction in the center of the district, such as a civic center, and tying all three together with paths, roads and plenty of parking. The increased focus between these three attractions could mean big benefits for new and current businesses in the area.

"The idea is to give people a reason to stay a little longer in Homer," Colt said. "That's the idea, and it has been borne out in other places. If you keep people in an area longer, you have (more opportunity to tap into) a vast pool of purchasing power."

According to Beck, the current trend in Homer's central business district is that more and more businesses are springing up on the Sterling Highway portion of town, thus drawing traffic away from Pioneer Avenue. Beck compared the potential outcome of that trend to the Midtown area of Anchorage, where Northern Lights Boulevard and Benson Avenue run by a maze of strip malls.

While the Town Square proponents made it clear they want the city council to make much of the detailed planning decisions on the project, one idea that was laid out during the meeting was adding several streets to the area. The streets would help draw more activity back up into town, Beck said.

Among the ideas are a street running from Main Street to Bartlett Avenue, and the possible addition of at least one more north to south street between Pioneer Avenue and the Sterling Highway (Bypass).

"The Bypass is doing a pretty powerful job of capturing most of the traffic," Beck said.

Council members reacted to the ideas presented with questions and mixed sentiments. Councilman Rick Ladd said that some sort of educational facility would be fitting for the third central attraction in Homer. Councilman Ray Kranich expressed concerns that the increased attention to central Homer could draw revenue away from Homer Spit businesses. Mayor Jack Cushing said he couldn't see asking the taxpayers to support the construction of a new city hall in the center of town, one of the ideas on the table as a civic anchor to the project.

Several council members asked about the plans of one of the area's larger land-holders, Cook Inlet Region Inc. While the Town Square proponents said they have had many encouraging conversations with CIRI about the development of its land in connection with a Town Square plan, the council was told it should solicit a discussion from the Native corporation itself.

"We felt a little bit like marriage counselors," Beck said. "Neither party has quite shown all their cards yet."

A final review of the Town Square plan's potential economic impact to the central business district is due out later this fall.

Carey James can be reached at cjames@homernews.com.

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