February 28, 2013 | Volume 43, No. 8

Downtown revival effort to regroup

An upcoming meeting of the Downtown Revitalization Committee may help determine the direction of the group, which hasn’t met since June.

Lenise Henderson Fontenot, who serves as volunteer chair of the informal organization, said that in the coming weeks she’ll call a committee meeting to be attended by Haines Borough Mayor Stephanie Scott and manager Mark Earnest. A date is pending.

When the group last met, a majority of people present agreed to request status as an official advisory body to the Haines Borough.

Henderson Fontenot, who operates a Main Street coffeehouse, said she’s hoping the upcoming meeting will lead to a format that would give the group an effective voice.

“When we make a recommendation or write a letter, it would be nice for it to go through correct channels and for something to happen... Otherwise, we throw around ideas and aren’t able to make the next step,” she said.

Henderson supported the change to come under the borough’s wing but also has said she was interested in any avenue that would get the group’s voice heard. This week she said she’d like to revisit the discussion of becoming a body of the borough to see if positions had changed on the question.

The downtown committee was largely dormant last winter. It has previously advocated for downtown infrastructure improvements and for a “green space” along Main Street near Third Avenue.

  Henderson Fontenot said last year that if affiliation with the borough doesn’t work, the group could then look at non-profit status or some other form, she said.

Haines Borough Mayor Stephanie Scott said in May that she welcomed the idea of the group serving in an official advisory capacity, but said the group would have to make the initiative for the change.

Member Brenda Jones opposed the change in status, saying she feared a group working under the government would end up “getting weighted down with the bureaucracy and involved in politics instead of self-advocacy. I think self-advocacy is very powerful.”

The borough might be less inclined to listen to its own advisory group than an independent one, Jones said.

The revitalization committee was formed in January 2011 as the Haines Borough’s follow-up to its $40,000 downtown revitalization plan, completed in 2010.

Earnest appointed Henderson Fontenot to gather a group that would pursue implementing recommendations of the plan. MRV Architects, the Juneau firm that wrote the plan, in April 2010 identified eight immediate priorities for a revitalization effort, including:

1) Formalizing a downtown improvement district and hiring a half-time staff person; 2) Working with the state Department of Transportation on funded improvements and starting discussion of future Main Street improvements; 3) Dedicating a local revenue source to get started; 4) Upgrading signage into town; 5) Starting a building improvement grant program; 6) Establishing a buy-local campaign, 7) Starting a downtown assistance program, and 8) Seeking funding for streetscape infrastructure.

Some of the items on the priority list were pursued. The Haines Chamber of Commerce, which was active on the committee, launched a shop-at-home effort in 2011 and the Haines Borough spent $80,000 or more improving signage in the downtown core. The committee discussed a building improvement grant program as a proposal to make to the Haines Borough, but did not pursue it. The group also identified the geographic boundaries of an area to target for revitalization.

Henderson Fontenot said this week that the volunteer nature of the effort has taken a toll. “Everybody in our group is busy running businesses. Like anything that runs solely on volunteer time, it’s harder… (But) the basic need for (the committee) has not gone away.”

Group membership has been open to all comers.