Letter: A bright future for Jasper

To the editor:

When we first arrived in Jasper last winter to begin work on its Downtown and Riverfront Master Plan, we had a general knowledge of the community: It had a strong arts tradition, was the seat of Dubois County as embodied by a quintessential courthouse square, continued to be positively influenced by its German heritage and contained a substantial number of large corporate headquarters for its rather modest size. We always begin our work by assessing a community’s inherent assets, and quickly determined that Jasper had more than its share.

Once we began our work, however, we had the opportunity to learn quite a bit more about the community. We spoke directly with a great number of its citizens both informally and through more than 75 formal meetings, and — perhaps most importantly — we listened to the aspirations of its public officials and civic leaders. As a result, we have come to realize that our initial observations about the assets of Jasper were vastly underestimated. Jasper was more than merely a delightful little town; it was truly a special place, with a standard of excellence and commitment to an exceptional quality of life in everything that it does. Something important was going on here.

As urban planners and designers who have been fortunate to have been involved in communities across the country — both large and small — over the past decades, we are often called in to help cities and towns stand apart from the “sameness” that seems to permeate much of the country.

Increasingly, authenticity of place and uniqueness of community character are desperately sought out to distinguish one place from another. Often these attempts include some degree of re-creating the past or some other ersatz effort of historical reference.

Jasper, on the other hand, has what we call a true sense of place, an understanding of what makes it authentic and what makes it a place its residents proudly call home. This is, to borrow from the TV commercial, priceless. And the initiatives that have been undertaken in recent years — through the efforts of the Redevelop Old Jasper Action Coalition along the riverfront, the support and the breadth of offerings of the arts commission, the investment in the community by its impressive corporate leadership, the bold decision to purchase the country club property and the extraordinary spirit and visionary leadership of the mayor, common council and city departments — indicated that Jasper was not just talking the talk, it was walking the walk.

So into this remarkable community we entered. Our task was not to develop a completely new vision for Jasper, but rather to help Jasper take what had already been done and help it rise to the next level. In spite of its array of assets, the downtown and riverfront areas nonetheless still have “gaps” that need to be filled. The courthouse square, fully intact and lined with local businesses, has over the years seen an erosion of focus on the pedestrian in favor of the automobile, resulting in a loss of vitality and vibrancy in the Square. The improvements to the riverfront are just a short distance from the Square ”“ less than the length of a Walmart store — but the connection psychologically seems much longer. There are a number of architecturally significant vestiges of Jasper’s rich industrial past downtown, but these former industrial sites remain largely vacant or underutilized. The arts and industrial heritage that the community is so proud of is — by and large — not visible to the casual visitor.

These are problems that need to be addressed; in fact, they must be addressed if Jasper is to maximize its assets and potential. But they are indeed addressable, through a variety of strategies involving a partnership between the public and private sectors, and for the most part in efforts that Jasper itself can control, or at the very least greatly influence. The Downtown and Riverfront Master Plan that will be presented to the city plan commission Wednesday, Dec. 4, for adoption presents these strategies and an action plan for implementation. It covers a variety of issues, including redeveloping — rather than razing — the vacant industrial properties for residential, retail, and cultural and arts uses; creating a northern section of the beloved Riverwalk and a new iconic pedestrian bridge; making major streetscape improvements to better connect the Square and the riverfront; designing places to sit and relax in the Square; and having a robust public art program that highlights and celebrates the arts and industrial heritage of Jasper.

To accomplish this, the public and private sectors will need, as they have in the past, to come together under a common vision. Funding will be necessary from both, but as a whole the recommended improvements provide a good value for the beneficial impacts that will result. Some changes will need to be considered in the traffic system, the layout for the Strassenfest, design standards, etc. But at the end of the day these pale in comparison with the vision to be achieved.

When we completed our initial set of public input meetings, a clear set of community goals emerged:

Critical Mass: Bring more vitality to downtown with more activities and special events.

Development: Repurpose the physical assets that the city already has.

Connectivity: Physically and programmatically connect the city’s nodes of activity and don’t allow them to compete with one another. Establish a citywide system of connectivity.

Engagement: Capture the public’s imagination and rally people behind a “vision” for the downtown.
Establish a community conversation around education, arts, the riverfront and downtown.

Small businesses: Increase the diversity of businesses in the downtown core and engage the emerging young business leaders and entrepreneurs who are the next generation.

Art: Capitalize on cultural tourism and invest in a robust public art program that brings people downtown and enlivens the streetscape.

We have retained these community aspirations as the guiding principles of the Downtown and Riverfront Master Plan as it has evolved. Two major public presentations were held to ensure that we stayed on point, and these extremely well-attended public sessions further crafted its development.

The mayor was relentless in pushing us to be as creative as possible and not limit the options to those that merely met the lowest common denominator. This effort was truly a collaboration with the community, as much or more so than any such effort in which we have been involved.

With the completion of the Downtown and Riverfront Master Plan, along with the evolving country club master plan, Jasper has put itself into the enviable position to re-imagine the character of the community in ways never before envisioned. We are honored to have been a part of these efforts, and look forward to the opportunity to continue to assist this unique community in seeing its vision transformed into reality.

— Barry Alberts, CityVisions Associates, Louisville
— David Gamble, Gamble Associates, Boston




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