A Town Hall on Tuesday night regarding the future of downtown Plant City brought dozens of attendees’ ideas to the forefront of the formation of a strategic Downtown Vision Plan.
First United Methodist Church opened its doors to a packed house Tuesday evening as members of the community gathered to share their hopes for the future of downtown Plant City in a Town Hall.
The meeting was held to gauge the community’s input on the current assets of downtown as well as where there was room for improvement. In June the City of Plant City and Main Street Plant City partnered together to hire Community Design Solutions to create a strategic Downtown Vision Plan.
“Downtowns are extremely important because they’re the only places in the community that are unique and original,” Randy Wilson, presenter with Community Design Solutions, said. “I want you to think about right now, the places, these great places you have in your community, for example out toward where your big box retailers are. Those retailers are awesome and so helpful for your community, but guess what? I can see those same things in South Carolina. But I can only see the assemblage of historic buildings you have here in Plant City in one place on the planet, and that’s downtown Plant City.”
Calling downtowns the “heart and soul” of communities, Wilson stressed the importance of having a flourishing downtown if the city wants to encourage continued, meaningful growth.
Wilson said the goal of Community Design Solutions is to offer a handful of “specific strategic tactics” rather than 100 vague ideas. They want to be able to leave Plant City with a roadmap on how to create genuine and deep change in the next three to five years.
Looking at the filled pews of the church, Wilson shared he also is a pastor. Asking for a spirit of camaraderie, he said there were only two ground rules for the evening: Treat each other’s opinions with respect and keep your answers short so everyone has a chance to share.
He assured the attendees his company had a formula that worked and that they based the analysis on the participation of the members of the communities they entered.
“We’re not going to solve every problem in Plant City,” Wilson said. “We just don’t have the time, effort or money to do that. So we’re just going to keep to our area of focus on downtown so we can place our focus on that area.”
Then he entered a quick, but enlightening, Q&A. Having spent the day meeting with members of the community, Wilson already had a strong grasp of what the community hoped to see in its downtown. Few comments seemed to take him by surprise and when they did, he asked for a brief expansion on the answer before ensuring it was written down and moving on to the next raised hand.
Wilson asked the attendees to sum up in one word the essence and character of downtown Plant City. Answers ranged from the naming of iconic landmarks, like the railroad and historic buildings downtown, to more metaphorical aspects like its friendliness and diversity. Some of the critiques were blunt, saying downtown is “dull,” “plain,” “barren,” “vacant” and “boring.”
The characteristics most seemed to agree on were the fact that the charm of Plant City lies deep in the heart of its downtown sector and the community was reluctant to lose that in the push for an evolving space.
Wilson then asked for the community to picture a postcard of downtown that they would want to send to a friend or loved one. What would be on it? What image captures the essence of Plant City?
Again, answers were visual icons like the train platform, strawberries, the one mural still downtown and the historic homes and businesses in the area. Some said they thought of the unique events held downtown every year, while others said they think of the Veterans and McCall parks.
The answer, according to Wilson, may involve a collage of some of those results. Visualization is key to success, he said, and without a strong branded image of downtown it will be difficult to easily identify what the character of that section of town truly is.
He then led the discussion down more passionate paths, asking what the community wished they could do or get in their downtown core. Hands immediately popped up around the sanctuary.
The attendees want a bookstore, a market hall, more restaurants and affordable residential areas. They want a children’s park and maybe a walking trail. Some said they want a brewery, others a food hall or event space. Many mentioned wanting businesses that were open after 5 p.m. and open on Sundays and Mondays.
Riding the wave of participation, Wilson alluded to downtown as a coin and asked for the attendees to consider both sides, or the things they liked and disliked, and to reflect on what stood out as the best and worst qualities of the district.
Answers began to repeat as the consensus slowly began to come to fruition. Downtown has charm, a special ambiance, especially around the holidays, that you rarely see anymore in other cities. Downtown has culture, filling the streets for its parades and special events, and an interconnected business and resident network that makes many feel like they’re part of a family.
However, the group was also able to quickly identify some massive flaws with the current downtown. Vacancies are a dime a dozen in the sector and many — including current and former business owners — said they needed to ask why that was the case. Rising rents, lack of advertising for the area, non-cohesiveness between businesses and nonexistent affordable housing in the area, all repeatedly came up as concerns. Traffic in the area also was mentioned quite a few times as people questioned whether the downtown area truly was pedestrian-friendly when so many cars fly by without giving pause to crosswalks or those strolling near the edge of the road.
Some of the attendees focused on the fact that Plant City still struggles to establish its official culture. When they wanted to have a night on the town or go out for a special event, they said, they had to turn toward Lakeland or Tampa to find a venue or experience that fit their needs. Others said without a focus on more green space or art, the area would never stand out as anything more than a handful of quaint historic buildings.
Wilson closed the Q&A by asking for one word of advice or warning for his group. Interacting with all of the suggestions, he assured the attendees they would reflect on everything that was said before turning around a final result.
The group also invited members of the community to share their opinion at surveymonkey.com/r/plantcity. The survey site said it will take approximately one to one and a half hours to complete as it is an in-depth questionnaire.
A large part of Community Design Solution’s plan involves ensuring everyone has an input on the plan. Communication is key, according to the group, and Wilson said this final plan doesn’t belong to the city or Main Street, but to the entire community. He wants them to understand its ins and outs and he wants them to all walk away knowing what the future goal for the area is.
Today the group will announce an initial summary presentation in a meeting at FUMC at 3:30 p.m. Community Design Solutions will upload a video presentation on YouTube for those who can’t attend and Main Street Plant City will dive into the results of the study in their next Topics on Tap event at The Corner Store, 121 W. Reynolds St., at 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 24.