Residents Want Economic Growth, Better Bike-Ped Trails: Report
By Brandi Makuski
Residents’ biggest concerns for the future of the city are now part of the official record- and city planners say it gives them a stronger foundation from which to position the future growth of Stevens Point.
For months officials compiled input from residents in each of the city’s 11 districts to hear concerns, perceived strengths and weaknesses and future wishes directly from those who live in the city.
“We wanted some direction on moving forward,” said Michael Ostrowski, director of community development. “Right now we’re dealing with the overall vision we want to identify for comprehensive planning, something that’s going to guide us, and after this we’ll start to formulate real goals and objectives, and strategies.”
Last summer Ostrowski announced his office would seek suggestions from residents as part of the decennial update for the Stevens Point Comprehensive Plan: a massive document encompassing current and future infrastructure, new construction, environmental and quality of life issues, as well as job growth, business development and housing needs. Ostrowski, along with Associate Planner Kyle Kearns, met informally with residents in each district for frank discussion on what the city should look like over the next decade and beyond.
While the city advertised the meetings in local media, the city website and on Community TV, only about 150 residents attended the public input meetings.
Concerns and suggestions were divided into categories, with some areas overlapping: economic growth and job diversity was commonly listed as both a strength and a weakness by those in attendance. Other areas of concern include retaining graduates from UWSP, number and quality of multi-family housing units and devising a plan to make the Green Circle Trail more utilitarian.
“One of the main comments we heard, not surprisingly, dealt with parks, natural resources and recreation as a strength,” Ostrowski said. “I think a lot of us can identify with that, with the number of parks we have and how we use them. It’s the number one asset that was identified.”
Green Circle Trail
Residents indicated their love of the Green Circle Trail as a natural feature, but said it lacked connection to several parts of the city.
“The connection to try to get to places, like the downtown, on the trail was very challenging,” Ostrowski said. “There’s no ‘inner city’ Green Circle Trail to connect with the businesses downtown.”
Commissioner Anna Haines said it’s a common complaint among students at UWSP, where she works in the Dept. of Natural Resources.
“A lot of people I’ve talked to want to get some place (via the trail), and that’s what they find difficult on a bike, or if they’re walking,” she said.
The Green Circle Trail is a 26-mile hiking trail, also used by bicyclists, that loops through the Metro Area- to include Plover and the Town of Hull- and also connects to about 20 miles of additional trails. Linking the main trail to areas like the university and downtown, Ostrowski said, is one hiccup city planners will need to address because it’s “very unique” feature to a city of Stevens Point’s size.
“They want a more direct route to certain areas within our community, as opposed to going around the entire trail to get to a certain point,” he said, adding the city would look at individual sections of the trail as new construction or improvement projects arise, as well as the possibility of connecting existing trails as an alternate route around the city.
But that, he said, would likely be studied in partnership with Portage County, which is currently putting together a bicycle-pedestrian plan they expect to provide accessibility a reality through the entire county, to include rural areas.
Interim Mayor Gary Wescott said future construction and growth plans need to account for bikes and pedestrians, because inserting a bike path in established neighborhoods as a shortcut to downtown is going to be tricky.
“The time to look at those projects is in their infancy,” Wescott said. “When you’ve got an area that’s been built up for 50 or 60 years, it’s a lot tougher to come back and do all that.”
Commissioner Garry Curless added a formal trail or path should also connect to East Park Commerce Center.
“Look at Skyward- they’re probably going to hire a lot of young people in the next three to five years, and a lot of those people will want to bike, I’m sure,” Curless said.
Ostrowski said another common theme heard during the public input meetings involved lack of student housing.
“We heard this a lot- lack of student housing, lack of quality student housing that’s available, price of student housing available- that was indicated a lot of times throughout the meetings,” he said.
Kearns said there was a UWSP student at almost every district meeting, and all had similar concerns.
“I know some of them came for extra credit, but regardless of why they were there, we heard a lot of these comments on that,” Kearns said.
Curless said he knew student housing was a problem in the city, but noted the city missed many opportunities to better the situation.
“A lack of student housing…well, the last five years the City Council has shot down almost every project that they wanted to build,” he said, alluding to several denied proposals for additional student housing, to include a mixed-use development on the former site of Cooper Motors, as well as a student housing complex slated for the Point Motel property, both on Division Street. The City Council voted down both after hefty public objection.
Kearns said students were very verbal about having to line up housing far ahead of the school year, saying rental units in the area are often rented out a full year in advance, leaving them discouraged about the local housing market and more likely to move out of the city after they graduate.
Wescott said one of the city’s most unique characteristics is that its size almost doubles during the day, so factors that attract people are already present.
“Stevens Point is the commerce center- everybody comes to school here, or they come to work and to shop,” Wescott said, adding the city’s daytime population swells to about 53,000- nearly twice its regular size- but many who work in the city live in the Village of Plover or the Town of Hull.
According to the public input, Ostrowski said residents worry about “brain drain”, a term used to describe the emigration of highly- trained or educated people from one area.
Commissioners agreed the future of the city could suffer unless young professionals were interested in staying local.
“People move away after graduation,” Haines said. “If they don’t see there are places they can live and work here, they’re going to go someplace more exciting, like Madison.”
Ostrowski said college graduates used to first secure a job before looking for a place to live, but recent data shows young professionals are now looking for a home or apartment first- and the city is low on single family lots.
Expansion & Development
But room for new single family lots is lacking.
“We’ve really got only one way to grow, and that’s to the east,” Ostrowski said, adding another concern from residents: the city is largely landlocked.
Stevens Point is blocked to the south by Plover and to the west by small municipalities there. The only real option for expansion, he said, is east, where the city has already annexed portions of Hull. But in some eastern neighborhoods every other home is inside the city and surrounded by Hull properties, meaning annexed land will be a mix of smaller, existing single family homes and large lots without any construction. Ostrowski said that will make for “slow, steady growth”, which is the perfect pace for the city.
Housing and employment go hand-in-hand, Ostrowski said, and public input indicates job diversity is seen by residents both as a strength in the city as well as a weakness.
“We had a lot of comments that we’re not focused on being diverse enough: ‘What happens if the paper mill goes under?’ or, ‘What happens if Sentry would ever go?’, and trying to identify new industries we could build on,” Ostrowski said. “But if you look at some of our neighboring communities, they’re highly dependent on one or two industries or companies. Marshfield relies heavily on Marshfield Clinic; in (Wisconsin) Rapids you have the paper mill.”
Ostrowski said during the economic downturn of 2008-09, the city did lose employees and population, but “not as much as the other communities”.
“The values of our homes stayed relatively stable, and that’s what we heard, is that people want slow, steady growth…and workforce- we’ve got a lot of jobs coming in, now we need the workforce to fill them,” he said.
But that workforce will expect movement on infill, he said, as many residents indicated they wanted to see some kind of development on currently empty lots in the city. The former site of Emerson School, now a largely- empty park space on Clark St., and the downtown Lullaby site came up frequently, Ostrowski said.
“People said they wanted something done with those properties,” he said.
“That’s impressive that people would remember what was on that site,” Wescott said, “because Emerson school came down, when- fifteen years ago?”
Emerson initially was the city’s first junior high, then later an elementary school. The building later served as the site for the city’s first alternative high school prior to being condemned and razed in the summer of 2002, despite attempts to have the building declared a historical site. The property has been owned by the Stevens Point School District since 1981.
In January of 2013, former Mayor Andrew Halverson told the City Times exclusively he had entered into talks with Superintendent Attila Weninger on a possible purchase or trade to return the property to the city. Those negotiations to date have been fruitless, though today the status of any future negotiations are not clear.
The Lullaby site, located on the corner of Centerpoint Drive and Third Street near downtown, has been empty since 1997, two years after the namesake baby furniture company closed. Since then countless proposed developments- mostly apartment complexes or developments with a mix of upper-scale residential and light retail- have been voted down by the Council.
Ostrowski and Kearns both said the input from the public is just one small piece of completing updates to the plan, as logistics and priorities of projects need to be studied further. Public concerns about a lack of safe intersections, parking problems in the downtown and better communication from local public officials are all concerns which need attention, he said, but each concern needs in-depth study and planning before it can be realistically implemented.
Plan commissioners intend to meet about every two weeks until the comprehensive plan updates are complete sometime this year.
“But the adoption of the (updated) comprehensive plan does not end the process,” Ostrowski said, adding that in the future, the city could consider updates to the plan every five years instead of ten. “We need to keep this plan alive.”
The see the complete summary of public input click here.