By Candace Sipos -- firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- City officials are revisiting an ever-present issue in the same way but hoping for fresh results.
"We made a commitment to downtown, but it sort of stopped there," City Council President Jeff Buettner said at a joint meeting of five branches of city government Tuesday evening. "We're serious this time."
He explained that officials have always considered revitalizing downtown a very important project for the city's economic health, but a similar meeting in the past did not bring about many tangible results.
Members of council, the Planning Commission, the Economic Development Authority, the Old Town Development Board and the Parking Authority broke up into small mixed groups to discuss five "vision areas" for improving downtown.
While in the "Branding, Marketing and Attractions" group, officials thought of everything from creating a brand that would have national appeal to drawing more of a diversity of attractions to the area, including a live theater.
Other groups brainstormed ideas such as having a year-round indoor farmer's market on the pedestrian mall, a movie theater, a skating rink and an indoor/outdoor, year-round venue for large events.
The group of roughly 50 officials crowded into the Exhibition Hall in Rouss City Hall for about two hours discussing possibilities.
Interim City Manager Craig Gerhart facilitated the meeting, and discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the current downtown area.
"We don't have a defined market position," he noted. "We try to be everything to everybody, and that seems to be what hurts us."
Other expressed weaknesses include limited building sizes, green space and event venues, and the lack of movement on the Taylor Hotel and Winchester Towers.
Police Chief Kevin L. Sanzenbacher noted that some people have the perception that the downtown mall is unsafe, even though statistics show otherwise. There were only five assaults on the mall in all of 2011, mostly relating to bar fights, he said.
"Perception and reality doesn't necessarily match, but that doesn't necessarily matter," Gerhart said.
Strengths include the many easily accessible parking decks, historic buildings and quality neighborhoods nearby, although Gerhart wishes they would be more intertwined with the downtown scene.
"Trying to get some of those neighborhoods a little more connected to downtown, psychologically, is one of our challenges," he said.
Buettner said the next step is for officials to combine all of the ideas generated during Tuesday's meeting into one spreadsheet and ultimately bring a few practical ideas to the council for consideration.