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The downtown Scottsbluff plaza open house was fun

June 3, 2015

I have to hand it to the folks who pulled together the downtown Scottsbluff plaza open house  – I had more fun than I expected to.

I figured this would just be the standard “come in and talk to some people standing in front of posterboard.” It was that, but with added whimsy.

My first clue was the map. Map? I know my way around the Midwest Theater, thanks!

Oh, but the organizers wanted to make sure no one missed a station. (Please pardon the photo quality in this post – pix were taken hurriedly with a cell phone camera in less-than-ideal lighting conditions.)

fdd

There were stations for a water feature, ice rink, technology/sustainability, fire feature, other parks, fundraising, movie screen/gazebo/stage, and public restrooms/indoor activity center.

Each attendee was given a sheet of sticker dots and instructed to go ’round to the stations to learn about them, and then return to cast sticker votes for favorite ideas.

Here are pictures of all the stations (except the fundraising one – oops! ).

water featureice rinksustainabilitysustainability 2wayfinding, technology, power, wififire featureother downtown parksstage gazebo movie screenpublic restroomsindoor activity centerindoor activity center 2

The various stations had little treats for attendees. Take your picture with props at the ice rink station, and you’d get a popsicle. There were little packets of s’mores ingredients at the fire feature station (no actual fire, though, for obvious reasons, so the s’mores stayed raw). The station with a movie screen idea included bags of popcorn.

There was also a film running on the screen with examples from other cities’ downtowns.

A few of the posters had examples from Rapid City, South Dakota; Silver Springs, Maryland; and Boston, Massachusetts.

There were a couple drawbacks to the event. (Hey, nobody’s perfect.)

The stations were set up such that visitors would mainly be standing in the theater aisles, so the works quickly gummed up if even a handful of people were at a station. I was lacking in patience yesterday, so I tried in vain to bounce from one place to another to complete my mission by weaving between theater seats. I didn’t spend as much time visiting as I otherwise would have.

Another drawback – in order to get all the stations staffed, it seems some people were recruited who didn’t know about the context or nuances of the various options being presented. Would have been nice to have had a general info booth. Maybe that was the purpose of the folks at the check-in station at the beginning, but I didn’t think of going back there. It was repeatedly made clear that the possibilities on the posters were just that – possibilities, and that nothing was yet charted for the future of the plaza, other than the fact that the city had purchased a couple of buildings that could be torn down to make space. However, what I intended with my sticker votes and what others might interpret from my sticker votes could be two different things.

A bigger problem of this event was that, other than the sticker voting, there was no way that I saw to collect open-ended feedback from attendees onsite. When I asked about it, one person told me to take a business card from near the exit and to send an email.

So, I figured I’d do one better – I’ll write a blog post that others can read and comment on, and email the link!

UPDATE: if you have comments on the project, here is the email, so you can send them, too: scottsbluffplaza@mcschaff.com

Also, it’s clear that there are a thousand permutations of what a downtown Scottsbluff plaza could look like. There will need to be some lobbying and consensus-building to settle on a clear path. It won’t be easy. I’ll start an influencing campaign here with my bloggy bully pulpit. 🙂

And so I give you, as organized into the categories presented on the posters:

SCB Citizen’s Thoughts on Scottsbluff Downtown Plaza Design

Water feature: splash, artistic, natural, passive

The water feature is going to be one of the items I will personally lobby the hardest for, because I have a pet idea. This idea, which came to me during my time directing Legacy of the Plains Museum, doesn’t fit neatly into any of the categories provided on the water feature poster, so I will invent my own: EDUCATIONAL INTERACTIVE.

This idea, which I would have loved to have integrated into the new Legacy of the Plains exhibits but really was not practical for that location . . . could work really well in downtown Scottsbluff and be a defining and memorable feature of the plaza that encompasses a big part of the unique identity of our community.

The idea began when I was walking through Pildammsparken in Malmö, Sweden, a few years ago. I saw a young man playing with this fountain:

Pildammsparken water featureI wound up going over to play with it myself. It was simple, yet mesmerizing. A sturdy, poured-concrete water feature with elevation changes and small metal gates that passersby could raise or lower to dam or release the water flow.

Add to this having experienced the Chamber of Commerce Water Tour, and I developed my pet idea:

Create a water feature like the one in Sweden, but instead of a cubist design, make a stylized model of the North Platte irrigation project, including the river, the dams and reservoirs, and the irrigation canals. Make it out of durable concrete and metal, with very simple functionality for easy maintenance. Then kids (including us “old kids”) can have fun playing in the water, raising and lowering dam gates and learning a little bit about the water systems that support our local economy.

Also, adding in an educational component would make it easier to get grant money to actually make this happen!

One other water feature comment: no splash pad, please. Why compete with the zoo? I think that splash pad helps fuel zoo membership, and the downtown would be doing a disservice to the zoo by introducing a no-cost competitor. Also, soggy kids dripping their way into nearby businesses? Mmmm – maybe not such a great idea.

Ice rink

I love the idea of a multi-use space, where summertime public gathering space could be converted into an ice rink in the winter. However, I have some major reservations about this:

1. Is an outdoor skating rink appropriate for our climate? As I noted when I first moved here, winter daytimes in Scottsbluff can be quite warm. An ice rink would be in constant need of attention because of all the freeze-thaw that would happen. Also, wind. We have wind here. It can make being outdoors in the winter mighty uncomfortable. The ice rink would need to have some pretty significant windblock features.

2. Operations. The city a few years ago backed out of operating the zoo. The city is currently backing out of helping to operate the Splash Arena. Why would the city even consider something like an ice rink, unless there is an idea to have a private vendor operate it? It could become quite an albatross. Also – liability. People fall when skating. Accidents happen. And expensive lawsuits.

Count me in the grumposition on this one, I’m afraid.

UPDATE: I didn’t spend enough time at the ice rink station, apparently. I missed that the idea is for a “synthetic ice” rink, which requires a lot less money for operation and is not dependent on climate, because no refrigeration system is needed. I found a recent news story from Albuquerque, New Mexico, describing the city’s decision to install a large synthetic ice rink after a test run with a small rink last year showed it was very popular with regional residents.

Sustainability

This category was kind of a weird catchall, including vegetation, a terrace, seating, a solar canopy, and “economic” – whatever that means. My thoughts here:

Seating. Of course you have to have seating. It’s a must for people-watching! It’d be great for that seating to be unique, such as benches with solar panels that have plugins for recharging personal electronic devices.

Some solar-powered lighting would be great, too. Save on electricity, keep the place lit up at night to make it attractive and discourage vandalism.

If “economic” means having a cafe or something in the public space – well . . . I dunno. How do you decide who goes there? Maybe instead have some shaded picnic benches, and post signage at downtown restaurants encouraging people to get their lunches “to go” and head to the park?

A terrace would be nice, but elevation changes are tricky for the mobility (or attention) impaired: case in point, people tripping over curbs at the farmer’s market. There doesn’t seem to be much space to create much of a terrace. And surely no terrace could go too deep there – I imagine there are underground utilities, and I wonder about rainwater/flood management. I think the water table can be kind of high downtown?

Vegetation definitely improves the aesthetics of a place, but I would defer to landscaper expertise on what would work best.

All I know is, whatever combinations of features go into the park, shade needs to be a high priority. It can get really uncomfortable really fast in the full sun. Whether that shade is from trees, solar canopies, or sculpture – it definitely needs to happen. How can the existing, new canopies be integrated into this?

Wayfinding, tech, power, wifi

Wayfinding. Absolutely. This needs to be the first thing to happen. It needed to happen yesterday. Specifically, downtown Scottsbluff needs a website. I mentioned this need when I blogged about downtown revitalization back in February 2010. It still hasn’t happened.

Wayfinding is critical to the downtown. Even I, a neighbor to the downtown and a frequent walker there, don’t remember all the businesses that are downtown and where they are located and what goods and services they provide. An interactive map with links to a simple page for each business (with a photo, name, address, phone number, website link and a brief description), and the ability to browse or search by category, and a link to a site with local tourist attractions, is really a necessity.

Physical wayfinding placards are becoming passé. They get outdated too quickly and can be expensive to maintain. Instead, placards with the web address and a QR code could be installed, along with wifi signal. If there’s a need to accommodate those without smartphones, a dispenser box with printed business listings could be attached to the wifi kiosks.

Yes, free public wifi is also a MUST, as are some power outlets.

Not sure what was meant by “tech,” but given some concerns I’ve heard about crime and vandalism, some quality recording security cameras seem like a “must,” too, alas.

Fire feature

My vote is for the grumposition on this one. Encouraging the idea of burning things in a public space? I just see too many potential problems with this. Also, some of the examples of flame walls make me think too much of Colorado ski lodges. It’s not who we are.

Other downtown parks

This was another station that seemed like an odd mishmash of categories. Bike racks? Of course we need them. Art? Of course! Though, given the smaller size of the park, it would be great if the art could be functional (e.g., sculptural bike racks, creative seating, shade-providing sculpture).

I also have a quibble with the other downtowns that were featured as examples in this design process. Rapid City? Silver Springs? Boston?? Those cities have populations of 70,800, 71,400, and 646,000, respectively, and are going to have a LOT more resources to draw upon than l’il ol’ Scottsbluff (population 15,023). I’d feel a lot more comfortable with some of the ideas being tossed around if we could point to similar-sized cities that had similar features.

Fundraising: advertising, sponsorships, events

Ah, yes – fundraising. Of the three ideas presented, I think I’d lean towards sponsorships, like a “donor wall” of some sort. It give people a sense of ownership, and it can be designed to be beautiful and non-intrusive. I’d definitely veto advertising. Clutter! Blech! Unless there was a designated, small and tasteful billboard or something. And events. Hm. There are already so many community fundraiser events, I think this would be difficult. I’d think more about “user fees” for space rental, maybe. And have downtown businesses pay into a kitty as well. And grants, of course.

Re: sustainability of operations – if whatever gets put into that downtown will need maintenance, can it pay for itself, or will the city have the budget and the commitment to maintain it? There are a lot of folks upset with the city backing away from the Splash arena at the same time this project is being proposed – what arguments can be made, in terms of number of people served per dollar spent and the return on that investment, that elevates this plaza project over other uses of city money? I would like to see some nuts-and-bolts kinds of figures here.

Stage / Gazebo / Movie Screen / theater / sound system

Stage: there absolutely needs to be some sort of stage. That kind of a space can anchor and serve as an intuitive go-to information center for events in the plaza and in the downtown (e.g., National Night Out). There needs to be a wifi wayfinding kiosk at the stage. And there needs to be seating and/or open space conducive to the angle of the stage. I’m not clear how a “theater” would differ from a “stage.”

Gazebo – meh. There are already several gazebos in parks around town already.

Movie screen. How does the Midwest Theater feel about this? How much would it actually get used? Maybe the blank wall of an adjoining building could be used? (Or would that space be better used as a mural canvas?) Large portable movie screens exist, right? I’m not sure how useful a feature this would be.

Sound system: installing something permanent, to me, sounds like a big maintenance headache. Maybe just having some poles and sheltered outlets where a system could be plugged in? But I’d defer to a sound tech.

Public restrooms

YES!!! I’ve wanted one on occasion while at the farmers market, if only to wash my hands before eating something. (And I’m sure my mom would second the need for restrooms.) Whether they were freestanding or part of a building, doesn’t matter to me. Just give us something!

Indoor activity center

I think I like the idea in principle, but I’m not exactly sure how this would be used. What’s the value per cost, given other meeting options in the area, like at the library? If such a structure would be included, it would seem to make sense to me to include the restrooms within the structure, and also to have a commerical-use-approved kitchen and vending area, similar to what’s at Five Rocks Amphitheater, so it could be rented out for public events. In that case, an indoor space opening up to the outdoors makes a lot of sense, like in the top illustration on that one poster. Why not build the resulting patio with a game board grid, then?

UPDATE: I completely missed an idea with this indoor activity center – to install playground equipment, so there would be year-round access to playground equipment, as well as an outdoor connection when the weather is nice. Another possibility: a couple of attached rental rooms, which would be perfect for kid party rentals.

Some other issues to consider

What is the primary goal of this project – to provide a public space, or to be an economic engine? Those goals are not mutually exclusive, but which one is the priority may point to how ideas can further be narrowed down. Does the downtown want to start with soliciting additional public involvement for a public space (I will note that a 2-hour open house on an early weekday evening will not attract a good cross-section of the public, and that many of the people I saw at the open house were “the usual suspects” – people who are influential in the community and in leadership positions), or does the downtown want to seek out information about what features actually attract the highest number of bodies with cash in their pockets?

UPDATE: I’ve heard there are plans in the works to have additional public meetings – what do you think might work, as far as timing and location? Also, I probably came across as more cynical than I meant to by my use of the term “the usual suspects.” It’s just that I tend to see the same people over and over again at planning meetings for happenings and projects in the community. Not a surprise, really – I think it’s a common problem: how do you get people to take time out of their busy lives and get actively involved in community projects?

Youth involvement – again, to the concern I heard about graffiti. Are the most likely vandals – younger people – going to see this as “their plaza” or “our plaza”? How can the downtown get young people to see the area as being a space where they are welcome, as a space that they have an interest in and want to protect? Could a feature of an indoor activity center be display cases built into a wall, where the West Nebraska Arts Center could help to curate outdoor rotating art exhibits, with a focus on young artists?

Programming – it’s not just an “if you build it, they will come” kind of thing in a public plaza. There needs to be a concerted effort to program events into the area, and a point person to coordinate these events. Where would this responsibility lie? With the city and the parks department? With the downtown organization?

At well over 2,500 words and 2 1/2 hours invested in this topic, it’s time to quit now. These aforementioned are my currently thoughts on the subject – I might change my mind on any number of them, given more or different information.

Your opinions / responses welcome in the comments!

UPDATE: After all that, I realized I forgot to mention in this this post that I am really excited about this project, and I see the plaza development as part of the continued improvement of the downtown that makes me love it even more.

Copyright 2015 by Katie Bradshaw

6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 3, 2015 2:23 pm

    From your description of this event, my perception is that it was designed to be a smokescreen to help disguise the fact that “the usual suspects” will be the ones making all the relevant decisions … in fact, they may already have.

    That said – the very first thing needed is a website to get people (I’m talking about average citizens as well as potential visitors) excited about downtown. A bathroom is a no-brainer, as is shade, seating, WiFi, a bike rack, and ease of access for the elderly and handicapped (and moms with strollers). A water feature would be nice, adding ambiance. It should be kid friendly in some way. However, a rink is a crazy idea (it would have to a privatized business because the city has proven itself incapable of dealing with ice, hence uncleared roads in winter), as is a fire feature (huh?), and an outdoor theater (the Midwest fulfills that function). There are other (safer and more “sustainable”) ways to get young people interested and invested in the plaza … such as sculpture that kids can relate to and interact with, and a WiFi hang-out space for teens.

    You asked what I consider to be the most relevant question: “What is the primary goal of this project – to provide a public space, or to be an economic engine?” And, until that is answered, it is difficult to see how this project will ever go anywhere truly useful. Sadly, whatever the city ultimately does, it will likely end up financially benefiting some of those “usual suspects” while leaving everyone else out in the cold.

    Now that I have aired my doubts, I will say that I hope my pessimism is unwarranted. I would dearly love to see Scottsbluff step up to the plate and do the right thing – make downtown a place everyone feels invested in; a place where they want to spend time … and money.

    • June 4, 2015 10:48 am

      Thanks for your in-depth comment! I think there is some new blood in the city and some downtown businesses that are genuinely interested in making something good happen for the community. And, it sounds like my blog has been making the rounds with the decisionmakers, and that there will be more public input solicited. 🙂

      • June 4, 2015 2:11 pm

        That’s good news. I hope this project succeeds beyond my wildest dreams. 😀 I’m glad you’re blogging on it.

  2. Rick Myers permalink
    June 3, 2015 5:10 pm

    Love your Swedish water feature photo. I’m working on interactive exhibit concept of what happens to a snowflake in Walden or Saratoga and why it is important to western Nebraska. The NP River watershed is spectacular and very few people really knows how it works. Yadda, Yadda but you get the drift (snow pun intended). I have seen similar hands on exhibit in Fruita, CO as visitors adjust flow and direction and one in Fort Collins that is a projection that can be altered as water pours on to the floor. I like the Sb concept with exception of ice rink. Think there is room for two splash water features. Downtown Grand Junction has one and it’s great fun. Oh well. Later!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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