Commission makes U-turn on Main project

In this April 22 file photo, a skateboarder and pedestrians begin to cross Main Street in downtown Goshen at Washington Street. City officials had just announced that three Main Street intersection signals were to blink red during May as an experiment in changes planned for Main Street.

GOSHEN — In a last-minute Hail Mary by Goshen Mayor Jeremy Stutsman, plans for a long-discussed redesign of Goshen’s Main Street were salvaged late Tuesday afternoon after Goshen Redevelopment Commission members initially withheld their support for the project.

During their meeting, a majority of the commission’s members initially voted to deny a request from the Goshen Engineering Department to advertise for bids for the planned Main Street redesign.

CHANGE OF OWNERSHIP

At the heart of Tuesday’s action was the recent transfer of ownership of Main Street from the state to the city, which was made official this past April.

That change in turn was made possible by the recently completed U.S. 33 North Connector route, an $18.9 million project that involved rerouting U.S. 33 from in front of Goshen High School at Monroe Street, along the Ninth Street corridor to Pike Street, with the ultimate goal of getting traffic off of Main Street and helping traffic get through town quicker without as many lights. As part of that change, control of Third Street was turned over to the state, and relabeled as the new Ind. 15 route.

Once that transfer of ownership was made official April 19, the city assumed control over Main Street from Pike Street to Madison Street and Madison from Main Street to the new U.S. 33, paving the way for the thoroughfare’s long-discussed redesign.

That change in ownership was great news for Stutsman, who together with his father-in-law, local entrepreneur Dave Pottinger, has spent years collaborating with other downtown business owners and stakeholders in formulating a comprehensive downtown redesign aimed primarily at limiting commercial traffic and improving pedestrian safety and walkability along the thoroughfare.

THE PLAN

Plans for that comprehensive redesign appeared to be moving forward Tuesday, when Goshen Civil Traffic Engineer Leslie Biek went before the Redevelopment Commission seeking permission to advertise for bids for the Main Street Streetscape project.

According to Biek, the project as planned consisted of repaving and reconfiguring Main Street from four lanes down to two lanes; changing parking along the thoroughfare from parallel to angled; striping bump-outs at intersections with delineators and movable planters; removing signals at Clinton, Washington and Jefferson streets and replacing them with four-way stops; and replacing curb ramps and select sidewalk replacements along the corridor.

“This project will increase the parking along Main Street by 42 spots, which includes the addition of six handicap spots,” Biek added of the plan Tuesday.

Total cost for the project has been estimated at about $760,000, with $500,000 of that having been committed by the Redevelopment Commission.

“We have additional funding coming from the state for the transfer, so we’re able to make it work,” Biek added of the project’s funding. “And since it’s just paint, we would be able to get an idea of if this is something we want to make permanent in the future, and then schedule that in as we go. And even now we’re still working with downtown businesses and downtown business owners and the public to try and accommodate the striping for all the different needs that we have downtown."

Speaking to the project timeline, Biek noted that her plan was to have the request for bids published on June 22 and June 29, with bids due back for opening at the July 8 meeting of the Goshen Board of Public Works and Safety. A bid award recommendation would then be provided to the Redevelopment Commission during its July 9 meeting, with construction tentatively scheduled to begin in early August and conclude in late October.

NOT ALL SUPPORTIVE

According to Mark Brinson, community development director for the city, a special gathering was held last week with downtown business owners during which the city’s plan for Main Street was shared.

“My impression was generally positive comments,” Brinson said of the results of that gathering. “A couple people still questioned the angled parking, but overall, I thought the meeting was very supportive of the changes, and we got good feedback.”

But that support did not seem to be reciprocated when the commission’s members began discussing the matter Tuesday, with several expressing concerns that the planned redesign may be more trouble than it’s worth.

“I don’t mind spending the money on paving Main Street, because it needs it. But I’m not going to support anything that narrows Main Street down to two lanes at this time,” said commission president Tom Stump. “And also, I’m not going to support anything that removes traffic lights for Main Street. I just think you’re creating a huge problem for people that actually want to go downtown by restricting traffic like that.”

Commission member Vince Turner also expressed concerns related to the proposed redesign, noting that — at least in his experience — more people seem opposed to the planned design than supportive.

“I just have real concerns,” Turner said of the plan. “The people who have talked to me privately, they loath the idea.”

That concern seemed to take some of the plan’s supporters in the audience by surprise, with several expressing a belief that the plan as presented by Biek had essentially been a done deal leading up to Tuesday’s meeting.

Among those to share their concerns over the apparent lack of support by some on the commission was Richard Worsham, co-founder of Janus Motorcycles in downtown Goshen.

“I’m here to just say that, from the group of people who are downtown, we had no expectations that there would be any fight on this,” Worsham told the commission. “This is a well-researched design that we feel is a good idea, and we feel that the city has done a great job of researching, developing and studying. And it’s kind of crazy. ... I’m just so surprised.”

Goshen City Councilwoman Julia Gautsche, also a supporter of the plan, offered a similar sentiment.

“I thought this was a done deal, and I’m surprised that there is this much discussion,” Gautsche said. “In my district, many people in my district really support this. We’ve been looking forward to it. The downtown business owners have been looking forward to the redesign of Main Street because they want more parking, they want traffic to move slowly so that they don’t feel intimidated, so that people stop, and shop and park. This is good for downtowns.”

In the end, those words of support would not be enough to sway a majority of the commission’s members, however, and the request to allow advertising of bids for the project was defeated in a vote of 3-2 against approval. Voting against the request were commission members Brian Krider, Stump and Turner. Voting for approval were members Brian Garber and Andrea Johnson.

DECISION OVERTURNED

But in an unusual turnaround, Mayor Stutsman in a last-minute plea to the commission was able to get that vote overturned.

Upon learning of the commission’s decision to vote down the request, Stutsman, who had been absent from the meeting at the time of the discussion due to prior engagements, made an appearance during the meeting’s open forum section to urge the commission to reconsider.

“He had heard that the commission had initially voted it down in a 3-2 vote, so he came back and asked the commission members if they would consider reconsidering, so bring it back for a new vote. So they agreed to do that,” Brinson said of the mayor’s plea. “They unanimously approved to reconsider, and then the mayor and the commission just had an open dialogue about the project. He reinforced all the reasons why he supported the concept of angled parking, and the additional parking it creates in the downtown. He also committed that, before we get in and actually do the stripping, get to that point, he will sit down and have further conversations with the commission members to address any concerns. Because this is a project that can be converted back to parallel parking in the future. We’re not making those permanent curb improvements that would lock us in long term. So if, for some reason, if it doesn’t work, if it’s just not something that we find that is working for us, we can switch it back.”

In the end, that plea would prove successful, with the commission’s members voting to overturn their previous vote and approve the request unanimously.

While not unheard of, Brinson noted that such calls for reconsideration are definitely an uncommon practice in day-to-day city business, and require that the motion to reconsider be made by one of the members who had initially voted against it – in this case, commissioner Stump.

“That was very unusual,” Brinson said of the action. “I think the commission members were very appreciative of the mayor being able to come back and address them, and I think they have a high amount of respect for his position, and seriously considered how strongly he felt about this project. And he did also talk about how many years this project has been in development, and how much discussion has been happening not just in the last few weeks, but in the last few years. So, this has been a long time coming, and I think had he known there was this hesitation, he would have been here. So he was shocked when that happened, but happy that it was able to be resolved.”

Stutsman noted as much in a conversation with The News Tuesday evening.

“I told the board I know this was not a normal procedure, and I let them know I had a very busy day, and was trying to hit multiple meetings, but really appreciated their support and allowing me to voice my concerns about the project being turned down,” Stutsman said of his call for reconsideration. “Again, I just really appreciate them being willing to reopen it, and appreciate all the public who came out to speak in support of this today as well.”

John Kline can be reached at john.kline@goshennews.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 315. Follow John on Twitter @jkline_TGN

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