Streetscape project has Lee County buzzing

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

LEESBURG, Ga. -- It's only in the beginning stages, that time when baby steps are the order of the day, but Leesburg and Lee County officials are excitedly discussing a streetscape project that could change the face of the city.

What started as a general statement, made during an informal gathering of city and county leaders, about improving the appearance around the newly renovated government offices downtown has taken on a life of its own and is generating excitement and a growing momentum throughout the community.

"So often, talk about projects like this is just that -- talk," Leesburg Mayor Jim Quinn said. "But this is doable, and I mean not some far distant time in the future doable. It can be broken up into bite-size pieces, and we could start today."

The proposed streetscape project currently being discussed has evolved from meetings of government officials and county citizens with architect/planner Ken Ricket. A principle with the Valdosta-based Ellis, Ricket and Associates firm, Ricket has put together renderings that show a dramatic transformation along Starksville Avenue between state highways 32 and 195 downtown.

Dozens and dozens of trees, enhanced and improved parking adjacent to county recreation facilities and the newly completed Butterfly Kisses Play Park, and a designated walking/bicycle path are some of the key elements of the streetscape proposal.

"There was a general feeling when offices were moved into the new administration building, the old school house (now the T. Page Tharp Governmental Building) and the school administration building that the appearance could be improved on," Lee Planning and Engineering Director Bob Alexander said.

"We'd done all kinds of studies on that area -- a DARTS (Dougherty Area Regional Transportation Study) project, a U.S. 19, Fourth Avenue corridor study, a parking study for the courthouse -- and there was a feeling that we should consolidate those studies and see what we have. That recommendation was met favorably by the city of Leesburg, the county and the school system."

Enter Ricket.

The architect/planner had gotten involved with the city and county when his firm won a bid to complete renovations of the historic Downtown Train Depot. And he jumped at the chance to help come up with a master plan to improve the looks of the new downtown focal point.

"Leesburg and Lee County's population is going to increase; no one's going to stop that from happening," Ricket said. "So it makes sense that the people in the community would want to see it improve with the growth, would want to prepare for the future. The way you do that is to get an early buy-in from citizens in the community.

"By improving the appearance of the focal point of the downtown area -- the greenspace in front of the courthouse, the image of Starksville between 32 and 195, increased and safer parking adjacent to recreation facilities -- you are going to benefit the community."

Quinn said Ricket's vision has helped set a fire under community leaders and others who've come to a number of meetings held to discuss the proposal.

"You can't see my hand, obviously, but my idea had this project at this level," Quinn said. "But with (Ricket's) involvement, that level is way above anything I'd imagined.

"There's an excitement about this project, and a lot of that is the fact that it can be done. And there are a lot of pots out there that the money to do it can come from."

City Clerk Casey Moore said a lot of those pots of money are already being discussed by the group.

"We could actually pull (funding) from a number of different areas," she said. "These are some of the ideas that have been thrown around: T (transportation) funds, public/private partnerships, SPLOST (special-purpose local-option sales tax), CDBG (community development block grants, which are awarded by HUD) and a number of other grants.

"There is the possibility here to truly tie in a number of groups and agencies."

City Councilwoman Judy Powell said one idea that has generated a great deal of excitement is working with the Lee County School System to cultivate growth of trees before planting them.

"If we get the school kids involved, there will be a natural buy-in from them as they become part of the project," she said. "We can purchase the trees in advance of actually planting them, and the kids can help nurture the trees until it's time to put them in the ground.

"Not only does the involvement generate future interest among our young people, it allows us to plant trees that already have a level of growth. Instead of tiny, 2-foot trees, we'll have 5-foot trees."

As the excitement builds around the streetscape project, Ricket warns that there's still plenty to be done before it's time to move to the next step in the evolutionary process.

"What's going on now is just a first step," he said. "There need to be ad hoc committees formed to start planning -- a recreation, a landscape, an improvements, a needs committee. City and county officials don't have the time to devote to this that citizen committees would, and that would ensure their interest over the long-term.

"I'm a strong believer in community involvement, including developers. Those are folks that can help tremendously. When you start to get that kind of involvement, you create a synergy that takes on a life of its own."

Meanwhile, Alexander said the elements have started to come together to take the proposed project to its logical next step.

"I know there's interest on the county and city side, and I'm certain there is with the School Board (a notion that is confirmed by School Superintendent Larry Walters)," he said. "You have all those new offices opening up, and there is a real desire to see the aesthetics improved (along Starksville).

"Lee County prides itself as being a quality-of-life community, and this is definitely a qualify-of-life project."

And while the proposed streetscape project is still on the drawing board, it's generating more and more excitement with each person who enters into the discussion.

"It's one of those things people are getting caught up in," Powell said.

"People are getting on the train. This is not something that can happen overnight, but it's one of those changes that can only be good for the community. Because to attract new people to our community, we have to change.

"This project is part of a vision for a better Leesburg and Lee County. It's a dream ... but everyone's got to have dreams."