I'm just a simple guy. I know about as much about engineering or streetscape design as I do brain surgery. When people talk about pervious paving technology and lighting lumens and the fine points of traffic and pedestrian management, they might as well be speaking Latin. My eyes glaze over.
I do, however know what I like.
We're replacing a couple of blocks of Erie Street this season at no small cost, sort of a test-run for a long-awaited renovation of the Lake Avenue downtown district.
To a simple guy like me, a number with six zeroes after it is hard to get my head around. I save coins in an old Iowa State beer pitcher, for the sole purpose of investing in a meatball sandwich on Saturday night. I'm not even sure how to spell infrastructure... how many r's in that sucker?
I have no earthly idea if $1.2 million is a good deal for replacing three blocks of street. Experts tell me it is innovative, I have no reason not to believe them (though I do note that the same experts get a handsome check courtesy of the taxpayers of Storm Lake.)
To be clear, the street's driving area will actually be narrower when done than it is now, and we may actually end up with a few less parking spots than we already have, due to modern intersection regulations.
The money we are spending will primarily make for a street that better handles rainwater. I'm told the paving will be prettier. Sidewalks will be wider, a parking lot will be more effective, water mains will be upgraded, streetlights swapped out for LED technology, small rain gardens incorporated.
All that sounds pretty good.
But, simple guys have simple thoughts.
Like, what about this investment will cause new businesses to come into this neighborhood, or bring more living spaces? Or more things for people to do?
And will it be more fun?
Maybe fun isn't a big deal on quiet Erie Street. But if this is to be our plan for Lake Avenue, the heart of our community - pavers and drainage and LED bulbs alone won't do the trick.
The downtown shopping village has virtually lost its strolling foot traffic and its appeal as a community gathering place. Even the coolest pavement in the world doesn't fix that.
When we get to Lake Avenue renovation, fun has to be a factor. It might not have to cost millions of dollars.
Street performers, for example. Almost all of the coolest places have them. Youtube is filled with them.
We have schools and a college full of music kids with amazing talent that the community seldom if ever hears. Lots of veteran performers who have been around since the '60s or '70s. Dancers, magicians, clowns, artists, poets, storytellers - we have those! If we can get people back downtown, you can fit a lot of dollar tips into a guitar case.
Little places to talk, or take the sun, or stargaze. Spots for kids to decompress after school and people to relax or romance on lunch break from work. Benches or adirondack chairs, not facing the street... facing each other! Before texting, there was actual conversation.
A table or two with beach umbrellas for sidewalk cafe style dining, a cup of coffee, a glass of wine - bam, you're got Paris in the springtime. A friend of mine suggests flooding a small area for a skating rink downtown in the winter, a little version of Rockefeller Center?
Not everything that matters requires retaining an expensive architect or engineer firm or taking years to draw up plans and specs.
Some of those strings of colorful, outside party bulbs overhead would lenf atmosphere. A bit of bike trail would encourage riders up from the lakefront. Strategic trees. A blank wall that we let kids paint a crazy mural on. Weekend BBQ's. Tasting nights for the local beer brewers club. Buckets of chalk to let kids decorate the cement.
Feel matters, style matters, quirk and comfort matter.
We have an inviting little family coffeeshop/cafe opened on Lake, and that matters. We have a little Tropical Sno stand with a bit of grass and colorful chairs, and that matters. We have a Farmer's Market with cranberry bread that I would conquer a small country for. It matters.
Those things bring people back to the heart of your town. They are do-able!
And it has to be said, if we want people to shop locally, the stores need to be open. How are working people supposed to peruse stores that are locked up after 5, on Saturday afternoons and Sundays? What happened to Thursday night shopping downtown - only a few places still seem to bother.
We've waited going on 10 years for a downtown plan, and when we get it, it will have paving and sidewalks and lights and water mains and all of that great and necessary stuff that government does so well.
But will it include encouragement for local entrepreneurs to imagine funky little shops with t-shirts and lake-glass jewelry and hand-thrown pottery and malted milks and old books? Nothing against offices, but Lake Avenue downtown needs to be shopping, if we want people strolling those nifty new sidewalks we put in. Will it have incentives for people to create more of the unique, trendy loft apartments upstairs? Somewhere they can park without getting tickets every time it snows. Will it give us more to do?
I'm a simple guy. I don't know how to build streets, and I sure don't know squat about paying for them. But I do know that if you don't put some fun on them, all you've invested in is cement.