Writer: Jana Wiggins
For Leigh Elkins, the “greening of Gainesville” is more than just a professional passion. It’s a labor of love.
Elkins was raised in Gainesville, Ga., and considers it home — her parents still live there. Now a senior public service associate at the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government in Athens, she helps communities integrate natural resource planning with community and economic development.
Her experience designing and implementing public engagement processes with the planning and environmental services team at the Institute of Government was the ideal combination when the City of Gainesville embarked on a $130,000 downtown revitalization program in 2015 through the Institute’s Renaissance Visioning and Strategic Planning (RSVP) process.
The Institute of Government faculty and environmental design team helped local leaders develop a plan supported in part by a $50,000 National Fish and Wildlife Foundation/Wells Fargo Environmental Solutions for Communities grant that faculty helped local officials obtain.
Gainesville leaders were determined to revive the city’s core through a project called “Creating Connectivity in Gainesville.” A main component of the three-year pedestrian connectivity project included incorporating green infrastructure within “the moat” — the four busy streets that surround Gainesville’s historic city square — and installing high-visibility crosswalks.
On June 1, city leaders, community members and Institute of Government faculty and staff gathered near the downtown square to dedicate the new crosswalk improvements and landscaped medians that now enhance pedestrian safety, beautify the central business district and serve as green infrastructure to improve air and water quality.
“One thing the study [the Institute of Government developed] really identified was that people felt that walking downtown was a challenge…a little intimidating to get across,” said Gainesville City Manager Bryan Lackey at the celebration. “So, the first phase we put in over a year ago was our crosswalks. We have done four of those intersections with one more to go. We think this is a great first step in helping people feel safer getting across the moat. It not only looks great but provides good pedestrian access.”
Jessica Tullar, special projects manager for the City of Gainesville’s community development department, described the process of getting public input.
“We engaged the public with 12 different focus groups and 17 individual interviews. One of the recurring themes that kept coming up was ‘we want more green space downtown, we want it to be more walkable and more inviting,’” said Tullar. “We are hopeful that what you see today, the brand-new medians, is just the start of what we want to do around the moat.”
Elkins echoed the excitement of Gainesville’s leaders with her own homecoming message and with encouragement to local officials to continue to find opportunities to implement their vision.
“I’m really excited to be here in Gainesville, because this is where I grew up. And it is always fun to be able to work on projects in the place that raised you up,” she said.
“From the downtown vision that was created a couple of years ago, the most exciting point for me professionally is to see real implementation and that the city has taken this plan and embraced it and continued to move parts forward,” Elkins added. “The part that we helped with most recently, thanks to Wells Fargo and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other partners, were the medians. And not only are they medians that beautify the community, but they also provide important green space and reduce and eliminate impervious surfaces, which can then help with water quality.”
Nate Collett, Wells Fargo’s regional banking district manager, told the crowd that Gainesville’s vision for additional green infrastructure aligns well with the bank’s focus on community initiatives.
“At Wells Fargo we look for projects like this where we can advance a sustainable environment. So we partner with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to find projects that strengthen the environment and help us move toward and transition to a greener economy,” said Collett. “This project is supposed to prevent over 70,000 gallons of runoff on an annual basis. We are proud to be a part of that.”
The city continues to launch other projects outlined in the strategic plan, which
the Institute of Government prepared through the Georgia Downtown Renaissance Partnership
with the Georgia Municipal Association, the Georgia Cities Foundation, the Georgia
Department of Community Affairs and others to cultivate vigorous downtowns in cities
across the state.
“During this process, the partners at the Carl Vinson Institute were wonderful to work with,” Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan added at the celebration. “It was a great process, and I think we are implementing all of the plans that we possibly can as fast as we can.”