Confusion and angst over issues like parking and access tend to take the lead when business districts undergo redevelopment, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in the historic Uptown district in Marion. “Many of our customers had concerns with parking initially, but a very active social media and press campaign by the Chamber […]
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Confusion and angst over issues like parking and access tend to take the lead when business districts undergo redevelopment, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in the historic Uptown district in Marion.
“Many of our customers had concerns with parking initially, but a very active social media and press campaign by the Chamber of Commerce has helped inform and educate people on the ample amount of parking,” said Ben Davis, owner of The Chocolate Shop, at 1244 Seventh Ave.
Davis’ business is in the heart of an area of current construction, the Seventh Avenue Streetscape and North Plaza Project, the latest phase in the Central Corridor Plan.
The plan — adopted in 2009 to revitalize and redevelop “one of the most prominent and identifiable areas within the community,” according to the city — repurposed the former railroad right-of-way into a street and introduced a long-term traffic management plan for Marion’s core, “balancing traffic” between Sixth and Seventh avenues and creating “a more pedestrian-friendly atmosphere in Uptown Marion.”
According to Marion city officials, it also envisioned creating commercial and residential opportunities in properties once reserved for warehouses and industrial uses.
“This project is a decade in the making,” Marion Mayor Nicolas AbouAssaly said in a news release. “It shows exactly what can happen when we reach higher and are intentional in our approach. We’re already seeing what is possible when we create an environment that fosters private redevelopment in the commercial core of our city.”
Work on Sixth Avenue concluded in early August, and the street reopened fully to traffic, with some added roundabouts.
“Now that Sixth Avenue is done, we’ve begun work on Seventh — something the business community has been asking for many years,” said Amber Bisinger, communications director with the City of Marion.
The city and the Uptown Marion Main Street organization are communicating with businesses regularly during the work phases, Ms. Bisinger said.
“And we’re encouraging folks to continue to go Uptown,” she said.
Seventh Street will be a hive of construction workers until the fall, and officials are working closely with businesses to minimize any disruptions or inconvenience, said Brooke Prouty, director of Uptown Marion Main Street.
“We’re doing great now; we’ve had some good weather,” she said. “We’re hoping for this first phase, which is the most important, to be done by the end of the current construction season.”
This proposed investment of $6.5 million in the community’s core includes complete reconstruction of Seventh Avenue and adjacent side streets between Eighth and 12th streets and Sixth and Eighth avenues in the heart of the central business district. It also includes a plaza on 11th Street that stretches from the Uptown Artway south across Seventh Avenue.
“This project replaces underground infrastructure that is over 100 years old, improves walkability, accessibility and overall safety,” Community Development Director Tom Treharne said in a news release. “It also enhances our city’s core, making it attractive to potential businesses, visitors and residents.”
Current work is focusing on an area between 10th and 12th streets.
“We’ve tried to schedule construction disruptions to be minimal,” Ms. Prouty said. “Contractors only come to break up the front sidewalk one or two times.”
Customers have access to businesses via the Artway, Ms. Prouty said.
“We’re working on some signage, and our businesses are great now, getting the word out that it’s easy to access,” Ms. Prouty said.
She said that the project has been in the planning stages for more than a decade, so there has been plenty of time to anticipate potential problems.
“The businesses have been well aware and been able to prepare for it and asked for this project,” Ms. Prouty said. “We did a survey a couple of years ago asking what they wanted to see. One of the priorities was improved infrastructure in the Uptown area.”
In all, there are about 130 businesses in the Uptown district, Ms. Prouty said.
Prior planning has alleviated much anxiety among merchants, she said.
“We expected it, but it’s been really minimal,” Ms. Prouty said.
Jeanne Matthews, owner of Uptown Snug, a pub and gathering spot in the old Marion Memorial Hall, at 760 11th St., said the businesses in the area see the long-term benefits of redevelopment.
“I think the redevelopment is going to be amazing for Marion, and the preplanning over the last 10 years makes it a lot easier for everybody,” Ms. Matthews said. “I realize that construction and development can be a nuisance, but, yes, there’s been a lot of communication and planning, and that’s why the Artway was developed — to train people how to use back entrances. I think that the hassle for the businesses is minimal because of that.”
In the long run, the work will pay handsomely, Ms. Matthews said.
“We started a long time ago revisioning uptown Marion to make it a destination place for people to come to, similar to Pella or the Amanas,” she said. “We had a good baseline environment for people to magnetize to. You get a distinct feeling of a very rich historic atmosphere.”
People also are willing to get out and about after more than a year of COVID-19 restrictions, Ms. Matthews theorized.
“After the pandemic, I feel people were ready to get out and be outside and socialize; we have not missed a beat because of that,” she said.
The Chocolate Shop’s Ben Davis acknowledged the potential for angst did exist for a while.
“Many of our customers had concerns with parking initially, but a very active social media and press campaign by the Chamber of Commerce has helped inform and educate people on the ample amount of parking,” he said. “We are due for part of our sidewalk to be torn out in the next week, but Rathje has been very active working with us and the building owner to minimize impact and maximize planning >
to best take care of our customers.”
The project is worth the effort, Mr. Davis noted.
“There are so many unique and special businesses; anything that helps encourage a positive customer experience in Uptown is going to be great,” he said. “In the short time we’ve owned the business, it’s very apparent how connected all these businesses are. If one of us is successful, it helps the rest of us.”
Travis Salter, owner of Anytime Fitness at 1101 Seventh Ave, said his business continues to grow, even amidst the construction process.
“We moved here in April 2019, and we’ve grown probably 25% since the move,” he said.
Mr. Salter owns his business and the building it occupies.
“I can’t say it (construction work) has affected us too much because it’s summer, and traffic is normally a bit down during summer, anyway,” he said. “It really hasn’t affected us as far as convenience, but I think with Sixth Avenue opening up, that’s helped. But we haven’t heard any gut-wrenching complaints. We haven’t had any cancellations. Overall, no complaints. They (construction workers) are moving like a bunch of army ants over there. People are still coming because the quality is here. Uptown is a destination.”
There may be a few headaches through the process, but business owners see the benefit of the project, Mr. Salter said.
“I know everyone is anxious to see it done,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll see a thoroughfare that goes all the way through.”