Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Gunnison Vibrancy Initiative seeks ideas to help downtown

There’s still time to contribute suggestions to the effort

By Toni Todd

The city of Gunnison recently held what was billed as the kick-off to the Gunnison Vibrancy Initiative (GVI). The roundtable gathering was held at Western State Colorado University’s Student Center.

The GVI is an effort to make modest, positive changes that will make improvements to downtown Gunnison in order to attract more visitors to get out of their cars, linger and enjoy the shops and restaurants.

According to the GVI website, “Enhancing Gunnison’s downtown core is a top priority for the City Council, as well as being one of the key economic strategies to emerge from the One Valley Prosperity Project.”

At the heart of the GVI is a group of stakeholders known as the Downtown Leadership Committee (DLC), a group of 20 plus residents representing small business, regular citizens, Western, city council members and city staffers.

Early this year, the city applied for and was selected to receive financial assistance to create the plan from Community Builders, the same boulder-based organization helping the county with the One Valley Prosperity Project. The project will be funded through a combination of sources: a Community Builders grant, $25,000 from the city and a grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA), for a grand total of $80,000.

The City Council has directed the city manager and the department of community development to work with Community Builders to craft a community-driven, action-oriented plan for downtown Gunnison.

Creating the plan is one thing. Execution is another. “Funding for implementing the plan has not been determined at this point,” said city planner Andie Ruggera.

Community Builders and the city are now engaging residents in discussions about the future of their town.

Carlie Kenton, executive director for the Gunnison Arts Center (GAC), serves on the DLC as the group’s lone non-profit representative. She described the rollout meeting as a series of roundtable discussions, where attendees shared their ideas for what downtown Gunnison either needs or doesn’t need.

“There were a lot of common themes,” Kenton said. “Attracting people driving through on Highway 50 or Highway 135 to stop was one.” Recommendations to address that included improved storefronts, planters and public art.

Kenton said she was invited to join the DLC because the Gunnison Arts Center is a cornerstone business smack in the middle of downtown. “We have the potential to create some of that activity people are looking for,” she said. “The more people there are walking around downtown, the more people we’ll attract.”

Another common idea generated at the meeting was the need to make downtown Gunnison friendly for people to both bike and walk. Making it easier and safer to cross both highways, but especially Highway 50, is a priority for many.

Gary Pierson, vice president of student affairs for Western State Colorado University, serves as Western’s representative on the DLC. “Certainly, enrollment and growth are behind this,” he said of his participation. When students and parents come to visit, he said, “They’re looking at the campus, but also checking out the town.”

This is an important consideration when recruiting faculty and administrators, too. “We hear continually about lack of things to do and businesses shutting down early,” Pierson said, but emphasized that it’s not just about creating a downtown better able to entertain students by providing exciting services and amenities for them.

“It’s very important that we get our students connected,” he said. When they come to Gunnison, most Western students have never had the opportunity to contribute to the betterment of a community. “We want them to feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves,” he said.

Pierson shared a recent story of a junior who ate lunch downtown for first time. The student raved about his sandwich and couldn’t believe he’d never heard of the place, let along been there, and couldn’t wait to return with his friends. “I know it’s only a few blocks, but our students don’t go downtown,” Pierson said. One suggestion that’s floated around for years and has now resurfaced—a safe, well-lit walkway or trail from campus to town.

“We help instill a culture in our students to be involved in our community,” said Pierson, who hopes any projects chosen by the GVI will include students, and the opportunity for them to help bring those projects to life.

The DLC will be charged with taking all the ideas offered by residents and turning those into action. Ideas came out of the meeting, but are also being collected via “idea boxes” spread around town. People unable to attend the gathering can still submit suggestions that way. There’s also a forum for suggestions on the GVI website, www.downtowngunnison.com.

Of course, said Kenton, there are always naysayers, those who don’t want change and like Gunnison just the way it is. Their worry, she said, is that too much progress will compromise our community values. “Our challenge is to hold onto our heritage and not lose that in the name of change. So, our hope is to implement small, positive improvements that will change those skeptics’ minds,” Kenton said, proving that we can improve our downtown without losing the essence of who and where we are.

“The next phase [of the project] will be gathering input on the common themes generated from the first phase and the kick-off meeting,” said Ruggera.

Kenton said the Downtown Leadership Committee will live on beyond the implementation and completion of the project. In addition to choosing the projects that will make the best, most positive difference in the downtown area, they’re also charged with fostering a better relationship between the City Council and the downtown business community.

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