- Associated Press - Sunday, May 17, 2015

SHAWNEE, Okla. (AP) - In the 1980s, shopping malls drew people away from downtowns, causing many stores to close and leaving windows covered with boards. The downtown drought hit Shawnee, leaving the Sears and JC Penney vacant.

For the last few years, residents and city leaders have been working together to revive the original commerce area. New businesses have moved in, and private investors have started restoring buildings, The Journal Record (https://bit.ly/1H5PQQT ) reported.

At the same time, a store in a 120,000-square-foot retail shopping center along Interstate 40 has opened, with more to come. The center is expected to help stop the city’s retail leakage. Another 280,000 square feet will be added before the center is complete.

Shawnee City Commissioner Linda Agee, chairwoman of the downtown development task force, said the area isn’t meant to compete with the new shopping center or the Shawnee Mall north of I-40.

“We want to see downtown as a place for loft living,” she said. “We want to see some retail, but more of the mom-and-pop type.”

Interim City Manager Justin Erickson said the area will be more for art, antiques, cultural events and restaurants.

“People don’t go to downtown Oklahoma City to shop,” he said. “(In Shawnee) we have a theater downtown. There’s a place to get fresh fruits and vegetables (at Crows Main Fruit Market).”

But many people will never see the charm of the Hornbeck Theatre or the pocket parks scattered throughout the old district. Visitors will get off the highway, purchase items in the retail centers, then get back on the road. Erickson said the city is working to make sure that won’t always be the case.

He said that, in the third quarter of 2015 the city will start developing its branding efforts. By year’s end, it will follow up with directional signs throughout the city, including near the new retail centers.

“Downtown didn’t get this way overnight,” he said. “Bringing it back won’t happen overnight either. It will take consistent focus.”

That’s why the city commission created a 14-member downtown task force consisting of residents, downtown building owners and city leaders. Using suggestions from a 2012 University of Oklahoma Institute for Quality Communities study, the group is working to make the area safer and more robust. The city already has a vested interest in the district through its downtown façade program, which provides a $2,500 matching grant to area businesses.

The task force created districtwide zoning codes. The new rules help clean up areas that could be considered blighted, Agee said. There are also storefront design guidelines in the works that will be published by July.

“You don’t want to be heavy-handed,” said Tim Burg, Shawnee Economic Development Foundation executive director. “But you have to have enforcement tools in place.”

Agee said the task force will be willing to work with property owners to clean up buildings. She said she wants to look at increasing the façade grant to $5,000. The task force has created recruitment information kits for building owners to distribute as they seek tenants.

The task force’s other goals are to improve parking lots and spaces, install district markers, and eventually create a 501(c)(3) that would raise funds for area improvements.

To help make the downtown safer, Erickson has worked with the police department to bring back its bicycle patrol.

“It will really help with the people that just hang around,” Agee said.

Later this summer, the city will start a five-block streetscape project on Main Street. The work will bring in planters, new lighting fixtures and parking improvements. The street work and the $4 million update to the city’s pool are expected to be a catalyst to downtown interest, Burg said. People are already coming to the area each third Friday for the art walks.

The events provide people a chance to see area artists, as well as get the nostalgic feeling of going back downtown, where they once shopped for school clothes at department stores. That sentiment may be an unspoken marketing tool, which Agee said she has been able to benefit from with her event space, Vintage Venue. The building dates back to the Land Run, and even has the old tin ceiling. She opened her place in 2014 and has been amazed at how frequently it’s used.

“A lot of people come from Shawnee and can remember when it was this place, or that place,” she said.

Burg said, “That works in your favor.”

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Information from: The Journal Record, https://www.journalrecord.com

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