Like other small downtown districts in East Tennessee that have seemingly been passed over by development along interstate or highway corridors, Lenoir City's Broadway Street was once home to a variety of retail shops, hardware stores, banks and hotels.
As part of one of the last phases of the Plan East Tennessee five-county community planning initiative, Lenoir City's leaders gathered Monday night at City Hall to outline some potential uses for the downtown area that could help to revive the sector.
Numerous University of Tennessee architecture students assisted Lenoir City Council members and other community officials in assessing positive and negative aspects of the downtown area and prioritizing development opportunities. Officials brainstormed for about an hour before sharing ideas with the full group.
"The whole point of this process is so that they can figure out how they can improve a town from within," UT instructor Andy Godwin said. "Instead of sort of swooping in and doing whatever they want or whatever a single person wants, how do we build consensus among people and help a town grow from within?"
Community leaders said they would most like to see an arts and crafts destination created in Lenoir City, along with an event venue. Other preferred improvements included the addition of restaurants, a town square or farmer's market and the revitalization and preservation of historic buildings.
Jeff Welch, with the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization, said in an interview before the meeting that the PlanET process was set to conclude by the end of this year. Knoxville RTPO has been one of the partners working on the collaborative project.
"I think what we're really hearing and have heard for the past two years is our education and our workforce development is really going to be key for us to continue to prosper here in East Tennessee," Welch said. "What we're also hearing is that people really want to create places that can be unique and special like downtown Loudon. What do you find here in your community that's really special and how can you preserve it and how can you maintain those areas?"
A similar meeting between community leaders took place late last year in Loudon to consider potential uses for the former Hutch Manufacturing Company, which includes 10 acres across the street from the courthouse along the river. The meeting in Loudon was facilitated through the Knoxville-based Community Design Center.
Pat Phillips, director of the Loudon County Economic Development Agency, said the owner of Hutch, David Oleshansky, was still in the process of completing an environmental study on the property.
"Until we get that in hand and look at it, we really can't move forward," Phillips said about future plans for the Hutch site.
Welch said PlanET officials and UT students were assisting with similar community brainstorming sessions in Lake City, Norris and Townsend.
Liz Albertson, a PlanET community planner, said she anticipated the students would be ready to make a final presentation to Lenoir City officials by the end of December, and Welch noted the students would prepare a poster board sketch of downtown Lenoir City based on priorities listed at the meeting.
"It's to spark a little bit of imagination, trying to create a sense of place for each community," Welch said.
Another small town revitalization strategy that has already been utilized in Franklin and Gallatin is called a road diet to convert four-lane highways into more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly thoroughfares with bike lanes, wider walking paths and reduced travel speeds.
"You're creating a better environment for your pedestrians, for your bicyclists and for your drivers," Tarren Barrett, with the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization, said.
Welch said through the PlanET process, officials have been able to open lines of communication to support collaboration across the five-county area.
"That was one of our major goals is that there would be continued dialogue and building the capacity of this region addressing these things from a regional" perspective, Welch said.