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Leesburg Council reviews downtown development proposal

Planners are drawing blueprints for the development of Leesburg over the next decade and longer. (Special photo)

Planners are drawing blueprints for the development of Leesburg over the next decade and longer. (Special photo)

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Ken Rickett, an architect and planner from Valdosta, reviews his preliminary concepts for downtown development for members of the Leesburg City Council. (Staff photo: Danny Carter)

LEESBURG — Imagine the city of Leesburg 10 years or more in the future.

City Hall may be in a new location. There could be a new retail area developed just north of city hall along U.S. highway 19. Expect a lot more green — trees and landscaping. Even the Veterans Park may be in a different location.

At least that’s the image architect and planner Ken Rickett, of Ellis, Rickett & Associates in Valdosta, has for Leesburg. Rickett has been working on a downtown development plan for the past few months with City Councilwoman Judy Powell and Bob Alexander, director of planning and engineering for Lee County. He presented an overview of the plan to Leesburg City Council members Tuesday night.

“Our goal is to create a new image for downtown Leesburg for the long term,” Rickett said. “We’re not saying this is what you have to do, or need to do, but you need some idea of where you are going. This is something in front of you that can give you an idea of a starting point.”

Rickett suggested using a tract of land just north of the existing City Hall building as a retail shopping complex. His plans also call for greatly expanding parking areas inside the city, including adding parking behind the existing retail stores downtown.

Rickett said the retail area could take many forms, depending on the developer and the types of stores interested in located in Leesburg. City Attorney Bert Gregory cited Lancaster Village in Albany as a nice example of a retail complex that was developed on a relatively small tract of land.

The plan includes a couple of large landscaped berms and a downtown park, Rickett said. He proposed getting high school students in the agricultural department involved in planting trees downtown.

‘When you cross the tracks, you’ll see raised landscaped areas, not wide expanses of asphalt,” he said.

He also proposed adding parking for the Courthouse, partially by eliminating a metal building behind the government center. The plan includes revised parking in front of the Courthouse, with landscaping and a pedestrian crossing from the parking areas to the building.

Rickett said he, Powell and Gregory have already met with railroad officials, who said they were willing to either sell property or to provide beautification easements at several locations to allow the city to implement some of its beautification plans.

“We were ready to do back flips,” Rickett said. “Rarely do you see a railroad company so agreeable.”

Ideally, Rickett said, an existing peanut processing plant in the downtown area would relocated to another location inside the city limits to allow that prime real estate to be used for other purposes.

“Most communities do not have industry in the hub,” Rickett said. “We need to find a way … to make it comfortable for this industry to relocate within the city limits, either through private development involvement or involvement of the people who own the business.”

City Councilman Bob Wilson asked Rickett how the plan would interact with the glut of commercial businesses along Robert E. Lee Highway.

Rickett said the commercial businesses such as fast food restaurants will continue to locate in that area. The goal, he said, will be to make it easy for motorists who want to come downtown from the perimeter road. One solution, he said, is to develop a road just north of city hall leading to the perimeter highway enabling motorists “to get to the heart of the city in just minutes.”

Rickett told council members that development takes money. One option to finance the growth, he said, would be to extend its city limits in the future, which would grow the tax base.

Rickett also said he envisions one trend that could also grow the tax base in the future.

“I think you will see a trend where people who move into Lee County want to be very close to the schools, and not have those long drives twice a day,” he said.

Rickett said high traffic counts in Leesburg will attract potential retailers.

Alexander said the state will be accepting grant applications in October for enhancement projects. The plan, he said, is to seek funds and coordinate with the county for an overall downtown master plan.