CANTON — The city of Canton is one step closer to revitalizing its downtown area to include more residential and retail space while making the town more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly after council members met Monday morning to review and discuss finalized plans for the city’s future.
The planning began last July using input from local residents who explained what zoning, development and transportation changes they would like to see made to downtown Canton as well as the River Mill district. On Monday, city officials were presented with the final plans of those drafts.
Topics discussed included ways to get more people flocking to Main Street by utilizing the city’s space more effectively by attracting shops and businesses, extending a path to the Etowah River to make it more accessible, and possibly reconverting Main and North streets to two-way roads.
They also discussed the creation of a pedestrian bridge across the river and the impact repurposing the Jones building would have on the city if it were turned into an office building or attracted restaurants or shops.
Planning and architectural design firm TSW, the group outlining plans for the future of the city, presented maps and renderings to council members, who are expected to approve the plans as soon as next month before sending them to the Atlanta Regional Commission. The firm began working with the city in the middle of last year and the plans were created using public input gathered at events and during open houses where city residents were allowed to express what they’d like to see done in the area.
The project, dubbed “#cantonforward,” is aimed at revitalizing the core of the city by attracting residents and businesses while creating jobs and making Canton more beautiful.
Founding Principal Tom Walsh said his opinion of the project hasn’t changed over the last year, calling the process phenomenal.
“Canton is one of those cities that’s going to be the next explosion,” Walsh said. “It’s going to be so exciting to see this town go through its evolution.”
They discussed the importance of utilizing the Etowah River to attract artisan-type businesses to the area. They called the river a “valuable resource” for the city and discussed potential ways to make it more of a destination for tourists and residents alike.
Project Manager Woody Giles said one of the best ways to do that would be by creating a bicycle and pedestrian trail that leads people from the downtown area to the riverfront, suggesting the city even build a pedestrian bridge over the Etowah River.
City Manager Billy Peppers was surprised to learn it was only a quarter-mile from the old mill office building to the proposed bridge.
“It’s not nearly as far as we think,” Peppers laughed. “It’s just not inviting.”
Walsh said getting the projects completed would be a “game-changer” for the city, adding that it was vital to keep Canton’s small businesses happy.
“You have business in the Mill district that are making things,” Walsh told council members. “Do not let them go away. Keep them here.”
He said it was vital that Canton already has shops in the area making great stuff and called it “a piece of the puzzle that’s already been solved.” He said a lot of smaller cities around the country work hard to attract those types of businesses, saying Canton was fortunate to already have that in place.
Transportation expert Brian Bolick recommended making Main Street and North Street two-way roads again. Doing this, he said, would help to slow traffic in the downtown area, making it safer for pedestrians while attracting more people to the city shops and businesses.
“In the case of downtown Canton, you’ve got about 11,000 cars a day on both those streets,” Bolick said. Converting them wouldn’t be an operational issue, as the streets work fine now to move traffic through the city. It would, however, be a marketing issue, he said. And the goal would be to attract motorists headed in both directions to the local shops and restaurants in the downtown area.
He said converting the streets wouldn’t take much work and urged council members to think about it.
Canton Mayor Gene Hobgood said he wasn’t crazy about the idea and expressed concerns that the number of accidents in the downtown area would increase and said converting the roads may result in longer commutes through town.
Bolick said the number of cars passing through town could double without causing any major congestion issues.
“We’re trying to move people, not cars,” Bolick said, adding that the objective was to “attract people to downtown, not through downtown.”
David Laube, who focuses primarily on market and real estate issues for the firm, said the biggest demand potential for the project came in the form of retail space, saying the city had about 40,000 available square feet in the downtown area that could be used to attract restaurants and businesses.
City Councilman Bill Grant said that was huge, urging council members and city officials to make attracting businesses to the area a priority moving forward.
Laube said as the population grows there would likely be an increased demand for an assisted living facility and an apartment complex within the downtown area over the next five years.
Giles said working with the city has been a pleasure and called turnout for the group’s public outreach events “spectacular.”
He said city employees and council members have been extremely helpful and very involved in the process, something he doesn’t always see working with other cities.
“Almost everything in the plan requires public and private involvement,” Giles told city officials, adding that the proposed plans weren’t something the city would have to fund alone. He said private developers would play a major role in carrying out some of the projects and said it was possible that funding could come in from the county, state or federal government to help pay for some of the work.
“There’s a lot of people working together that are going to have to cooperate to make this happen,” he said, adding that the ARC would likely help to fund some of the proposed transportation projects.
Giles said TSW will present the information to the public during a council meeting sometime in June and city council members are expected to adopt the plan sometime that month to get the projects underway.