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Several downtown Leesburg merchants and residents say an inviting streetscape and gateway entrance into Main Street off U.S. Highway 27/441 is what the city needs for economic success and future survival.
“There are still people in Leesburg that do not know that there is a downtown,” said Joe Shipes, executive vice president of Leesburg Partnership. “People in the community to the south, and in Plantation, they think downtown is Highway 27/441. There is nothing on 27 that shouts: ‘Downtown, this way.'”
Tim Bridges of Lake Community Action Agency, also believes an attractive gateway is needed to identify the downtown area and invite folks to check out the shops and eateries on Main street and its side roads.
“Right now that doesn’t exist,” Bridges said. “If you don’t do something to entice people to want to spend money and come to your area, then the local businesses are not going to be able to sustain themselves.”
Bridges was among a crowd of local residents and merchants who approved of the streetscape and gateway design renderings presented Wednesday by Frank Bellomo, landscape architect and president of Bellomo Herbert in Orlando, at a design workshop, hosted by the city and Leesburg Partnership.
The gateway drawing — billed as a timeless, traditional look — shows two brick arches as part of the gateway entrance at the intersection of Main street and the highway (also known as 14th street). The arches would serve as the pedestrian entryway on the sidewalks lining both sides of Main street.
“I think they’ve done an excellent job in giving the city the type of look that we need here,” said Debbie Fahy, an interior designer. “I’d love to see this town revitalized, I really would, and it would bring some life back to the city. I think it would be wonderful. Leesburg is going to die if we don’t do something.”
“We need people to support Leesburg,” Fahy added. “We just need a nice endowment to get everything funded.”
Money is an issue.
Leesburg City Manager Jay Evans told the crowd that there are no immediate funds for the streetscape project, because revenues are decreasing as a result of the recession.
“There are no options to borrow money from the general fund or from the reserves,” Evans said, adding many city projects “are pay-as-you-go now.”
“There is one point where the city commission does have money, and it’s holding for economic development purposes and that’s from the gas department,” Evans said, adding the gas department has “substantial reserves” and is doing very well.
However, Evans said the city commission is saving the fund for a rainy day.
“Because we don’t have any other pot of money to look to, and if we need an incentive for a company to come to town, if somebody comes in bringing 300 jobs and you need to throw $1.5 million into infrastructure or something, you’ve got to be able to do it from somewhere,” Evans said. “And that’s what they’ve been holding that pot for.”
No official figure has been given to city officials regarding the total cost of the streetscape project, but Bellomo estimates it could be in the $2.5 million range. Evans noted the landscape architect’s guess does not take into account the infrastructure cost that would need to be determined by Ray Sharp, Leesburg’s public works director.
Both Bellomo and Sharp plan to break down to break down the streetscape cost in phases, such as doing the work block by block. The project will be put out for bids, which Shipes believes will help show what the project really costs. Shipes also hopes the community rallies in support of the project.
He realizes a new gateway and streetscape will not appear overnight.
“My expectation is that it’s five to 10 years,” Evans said.
“We don’t have five years,” Shipes replied. “The competition that we have to the west (the current construction of Brownwood Town Square on State Road 44 by The Villages) makes it critical that this project gets finished, at least the gateway, and it can happen. … When you talk about economic development, I can’t think of a better economic development project.
Shipes also believes the project could be beneficial in replacing infrastructure that needs to be replaced.
“I think the funds that the city has for the replacement of water lines and infrastructure is there,” he said.
As long ago as 1998, Shipes said he heard the words “it can’t be done” by Leesburg city officials regarding the streetscape improvement downtown on Towne Square by City Hall.
“We were told then that there wasn’t money,” he said. “So we figured out a way how it could be done and we got it done. We can do it. We need to get the support from the commission to go ahead and take funds that we have, maybe not right now, but we have future funds to figure out a way to go ahead and do this project.”
Leesburg is not alone in being cautious about spending money on landscape architect projects, said Bellomo.
“We see that everywhere, so it’s not unusual not at all,” the landscape architect said. “I think it is somewhat of function of prioritizing what projects the community wants to get done. There are a number of communities that are not in a position to do anything right now.”
However, the cities that are going ahead with projects, Bellomo said they are doing so with grant funding.
“We’re working for some communities right now that are progressively pursuing some grants for some smaller projects, but it allows them to continue to advanced those. This is obviously an important project to the city, and it’s matter of how they are going to be able to finance it and when.”
Evans said the streetscape project will be evaluated in more detail by the city commissioners, once they understand exactly what the project is going to cost in terms of both the above ground and underground infrastructure costs, and are presented with a phasing schedule.
“The city commission will have to determine how this project fits in with other priorities that they may have,” Evans said. “They’ll have to weigh this.”
Leesburg’s city manager understands the work being done in The Villages, just eight miles down the road on State Road 44 (which runs into Main street) is spurring an increased interest in the streetscape project.
“There are quite a few people concerned that the developments in Sumter County will have an impact, both on our downtown and other commercial corridors and our mall, and so this is one of several aspects of competition in surrounding communities that we need to concern ourselves with,” Evans said. “Is our downtown going to be able to compete with other alternatives for retail?”
Rex Masterman, president of the Downtown Leesburg Business Association, would love to see Leesburg enhanced with an inviting gateway and streetscape that welcomes people to town.
“I do believe we need this and it’s critical,” he said, approving Bellomo’s gateway design. “I love the look of it.”
“I think it’s gorgeous,” added merchant Dell Ross, owner of Doggibags. “I really love it. It’s a beautiful entrance and it’s just what we need.”