Our View: Construction’s end just the beginning for Streetscape

Our view
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Now that the first phase of the long-awaited Auburn Streetscape project is built, will they come? They came Wednesday evening for a ribbon-cutting ceremony and semi-street party that was a joyous and welcome end to more than eight months of construction in Downtown Auburn. For a few hours, a nice cross-section of Auburn business, government and citizenry reveled in the public works accomplishment. Some said Streetscape Phase I just might be the most significant Auburn project in half a century. It is truly important to take a moment and celebrate the new public square and improved intersection. The trees, plants and grasses soften what would otherwise be an expanse of slate and cement. The fire pit is a hot attraction, especially on chilly and damp evenings. The pedestals offer a prime location for Downtown art, and allow Auburn to discover and explore its history through interpretive displays. There’s enough open space for public events, as well as street-side dining opportunities that will complement the shopping and social activities. The design blends exceptionally with the historic Masonic Lodge building, and the outdoor lighting accents the architecture well. Streetscape Phase I shows Auburn as a progressive city willing to invest in its future. With the second phase ready to begin work this summer near the State Theater, city officials want to continue the momentum. But let’s catch our collective breath. The $2.2 million redevelopment investment, while not taken from the city’s general fund that covers public safety and operations, is still a lot of money to pay for what really is a public-private works project that benefits the businesses and building owners. Streetscape I has many cynics, and there are some aspects of the project that remain questionable. The parking appears confusing and quirky. The two angled spots near the intersection won’t accommodate extended-length vehicles. Clear signage is needed to direct shoppers to public parking lots nearby. Though the streets and sidewalks look better, some buildings don’t compare. Businesses on the east side of High Street need extensive façade work to blend in, as does the former Izzy’s Pub building, which is run down and vacant. The main art pedestal is huge, indicating a huge statue will hold the position. Huge, when talking about art, can mean very expensive. With the city’s infrastructure needs and basic services cuts — wastewater treatment, fire and police, city workers’ jobs being outsourced — now seems like the wrong time for what could be considered frivolous investments. Will private donations pay all, or a major portion of the art bill? As progressive as Auburn wants to be, where is the aggressive business recruitment program and economic development marketing plan to make this investment pay off? Numerous city and business leaders agree there isn’t a comprehensive plan to market the public square and the vacant properties within it. Such a plan should include an anchor business or restaurant, perhaps at the Izzy’s location, and it should offer a convincing reason to change shoppers’ habits. “Think Auburn First” is an important program and mindset, but keeping tax dollars local isn’t going to be the compelling incentive to reprogram consumers. Now is the time for the city of Auburn, Downtown Business Association, city Economic Development Commission, Auburn Chamber of Commerce and business owners to pull together and construct the marketing blueprint to maximize Streetscape. The euphoria of Wednesday’s Streetscape celebration will wear off. Let’s take the time now to understand what worked, what didn’t and what has to be done for future phases. Congratulations Auburn. We built something special, but time will tell if we really completed the work.