Wally Kennedy: More lighting could further brighten downtown image

Mar. 17—The public's perception about what is happening in downtown Joplin appears to be changing to one that is more favorable.

A survey, conducted by the Downtown Joplin Alliance in 2018 that involved about 250 participants, revealed some serious reservations about the future of downtown Joplin. A second survey, conducted last year that involved about 200 participants, shows a greater openness to the untapped possibilities that exist downtown and a greater willingness to live there.

This information was presented by Chad Brueckner, alliance board president, to about 35 people who attended a Downtown Now meeting March 8 in the newly renovated Frisco Lofts, Sixth and Main streets.

"There has been a change in perception," Brueckner said. "The 2018 survey was very negative when compared to the 2022 survey."

Participants in the 2018 survey used words like "boring, vacant, empty, old and homeless" to characterize the downtown. The participants noted concerns about safety but also recognized the downtown's "history and potential." In 2022, the participants used words like "charming, historic, restaurants, live music and potential" to describe the downtown.

Brueckner said much has happened in downtown Joplin between the first and second surveys. The downtown has become more active with new businesses, historic redevelopment and new assets, including the new arts complex. Also, more people are living downtown.

The 2018 survey found that 70% of those surveyed would not live downtown. The 2022 survey found that 50% of those surveyed would live downtown. The alliance is hoping that the growing number of lofts and apartments in downtown buildings will lead to further economic development in the historic district and the addition of amenities to serve downtown residents.

In that vein, the alliance is sponsoring a loft tour from 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday, May 6, in downtown Joplin. Tickets are available through the alliance. After the Downtown Now meeting, some of those attending were given an unscheduled tour of the Frisco Lofts.

The survey results, especially those from 2018, reminded me of the community roundtable the Globe sponsored back in the late 1990s that put a spotlight on the dreadful conditions that existed downtown at that time. Businesses were boarded up, and the rest were struggling to survive. At night, it could be a dark and insecure place. The members of the roundtable, which included Mayor Earl Carr and Anthony Kassab, a longtime downtown businessman, came up with a number of recommendations to get the downtown back on track.

The city did its part by correcting the most pressing issue facing the downtown — flooding. Willow Branch flows under downtown businesses in the area between Fifth and Sixth streets. It flooded the downtown in the past multiple times. Who would want to invest money in a building that could be flooded? The city's stormwater-management fix, so far, has passed every test. The city also created a streetscape for Main Street businesses with new sidewalks, and improved signage and lighting. It was the foundation for the downtown recovery that has taken place since then.

But one of the roundtable's recommendations is still an issue — lighting to improve security. The new streetscape included period-appropriate lighting, but the downtown still seems dark. Some participants in the 2018 survey said they did not go downtown because they thought it was not safe. Brueckner said new lighting has been added to Spiva Park at Fourth and Main streets to make it brighter at night. It's a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done.

I wish there were ways to illuminate the architecture and brickwork of downtown buildings at night with cost-effective solar lighting systems. I wish the "Celebrating the Performing Arts" mural at Seventh and Main and the "Joplin Uplift" mural at First and Main were illuminated at night. These murals give as much insight into who we are as do the buildings on which they appear.

But there's a hitch. The lighting has to be in line with historic guidelines. These downtown buildings did not have solar lighting systems when they were built. Many of these buildings predate the early days of neon lighting in the 1930s. It's a question before Joplin's Historic Preservation Commission, of which Brueckner is a member.

"There are no lighting guidelines for historic properties," he said. "We are creating the guidelines now for future lighting with a step-by-step process for business owners."

Let's hope the commission finds a way to put a little more light on the subject.

Contact Wally Kennedy at wkennedy@joplinglobe.com.