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CM WALKER/Alachua  County Today

ALACHUA – Representatives from Redevelopment Management Associates (RMA) were on hand late Tuesday afternoon at the Swick House in Alachua to hear from local business and property owners about how they would like to see the developments of Main Street and the Community Redevelopment Area occur.

The three representatives, Kevin Crowder, Director of Economic Development; Sharon McCormick, Director of Business Attraction & Marketing; and Lynn Dehlinger, Sr. Economic Development Manager, conducted a brief presentation before the Alachua City Commission the night before.

The workshop was the first in a series of steps in the creation and implementation of a plan to develop the area. Citizen input will help the group produce a marketing plan.

RMA contends that some of the plans it developed in other parts of Florida have led to a vibrant, healthy economy.

Some of the issues residents asked the developers to keep in mind included ways in which traffic might be directed from U.S. 441 to downtown Alachua; the creation of adequate parking; better signage; how to maintain foot traffic on Sundays when some stores are closed; removing stop signs on Main Street; modifications to city codes to encourage shorter business startup times; and ways to help keep retail buildings from being rented out as office space.

Crowder explained how the group expects the process to advance. “We expect to have a market assessment completed by the end of February,” he said. “In March, we plan to have the meat of what our strategies will be to achieve our goals. By April we will be finalizing the action plan and begin implementation. We expect to be finished with the process by May 1,” he said.

One audience member asked if there was a connection between a vibrant downtown area and arts and culture. “Absolutely,” was the response of all three RMA representatives. “A common theme in Winter Park, Sarasota, Melbourne, Delray Beach and Northwood Village is arts and culture,” said Crowder. “It's one of the key elements that helps define that area. Identifying those opportunities, they can be big or small, is very important.”

As an example of a small item that can be done to maintain arts and culture, he explained, “When there is a vacancy in Coconut Grove, the building owner keeps the lights on so the local artists can display their work in the window.”

Another important element in creating a destination for visitors is social networking, explained McCormick. Accurate GPS and tourist destination site listings are two ways in which the internet can help define an area for visitors. “Yelp is a great way to locate city building departments as well as other items,” said Crowder. “A Facebook page is a place to engage. It has to be managed. You have to work on it,” he said.

McCormick touched on the idea that Alachua already had a lot of existing assets. Following the meeting, Crowder listed some of the assets he had already observed.

“First and foremost is the historic essence...the historic buildings...the historic district, the National Register Designation, that is a big asset. The design of Main Street and the curve that was put in...the comments I've heard are that that aesthetic is a big asset. The proximity to U.S. 441 and I-75 is an asset. Alachua is closer to the interstate than a lot of the real vibrant downtowns that we see around the state. Progress Park is a strong asset and is probably not being used to its full potential.” Finally, he listed the city's proximity to a market like Gainesville as another benefit that can be explored.

Cultural tourism, an aspect of developing a vibrant downtown area, was defined by Crowder. “Anything that brings in people who don't live here to engage in and experience whatever creativity the area has to offer. It can be historic district tourism. Historic assets are cultural assets,” he said. “Whatever cultural experiences we find here that create that identity that makes people seek you out and want to live or visit is cultural tourism.”

RMA was brought to Alachua at a cost of $50,000 and is being paid for jointly by the Community Redevelopment Agency and the city's General Fund.

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