Main Street traffic isn’t going anywhere any time soon. With traffic numbers at a critical mass and growing, visitors and residents are frequenting businesses in the downtown area less, and walkability is at an all time low. What can we do to enjoy Main Street instead of just endure it?
What to do about Main Street? These words echoed through the conference room early in 2017 when Roger Brooks, a community branding expert, shared his assessment of Heber City to an audience of more than 100 community leaders. As part of a program aimed at enhancing tourism economies, the Utah Office of Tourism and the Heber Valley Tourism and Economic Development Agency invited Brooks to spend a week in the Heber Valley and provide a direct, honest assessment of his perception of the community.
Like a bag of trail mix, Brooks’ assessment focused on the tasteful and distasteful parts of the community and what can be done to solve some of our issues. The first area he addressed was Heber City’s Main Street and the challenges it presents.
Since the time of the 2002 Olympics, the greater Heber Valley area has become a well-known destination where people want to live and play. In the year 2000, the population of Wasatch County was merely 15,215. Now, less than 20 years later, the population has doubled as more than 30,000 residents have made their home in Heber Valley. Just recently, the United States Census Bureau listed Wasatch County as the seventh fastest growing county in the United States with a 4.8 percent growth rate. By the year 2040, the population of Wasatch County is projected to reach 60,000.
So, what does this historical and projected population growth mean to Main Street in Heber City? For starters, it is important to point out that Main Street is part of State Highway 40 and is governed by the Utah Department of Transportation—not Heber City or Wasatch County. This means stoplights, road maintenance, and traffic signage falls under UDOT’s jurisdiction. According to recent UDOT data, approximately 28,000 vehicle trips occur on Main Street every day—a number that is considered the breaking point for what the road is designed to handle.
With limited say on how to address Main Street’s issues, county and city leaders created a plan to divert much of the congestion to a western bypass corridor which will begin near the northern edge of Heber City and connect to Highway 189, near South Field Road. The cost of building such a corridor is understandably high, so the county and city councils adopted a $10 fee which is assessed on all vehicle registrations in Wasatch County. This funding has enabled the county and cities to acquire parcels of land that are needed to construct the corridor. To date, approximately 200 acres have been acquired for the project, but many more are still needed to move forward with the bypass corridor.
Knowing that Main Street traffic isn’t going anywhere any time soon, Brooks recommended several steps that local businesses, governments, and residents can take to improve the Main Street experience, because as Brooks stated, “People are having to endure Main Street, not enjoy it.”
Welcome and Wayfinding Signs
The first recommendation is to provide better welcome mats on each end of Main Street. These “welcome mats” should be welcome signs to inform people—both visitors and residents alike—that they have arrived. To complement the welcome signs, Brooks also recommended constructing branded wayfinding signs to better point people to various locations throughout the community. As a result, people will feel better connected with the identity of the city and will be able to learn more about businesses, events, and other community attractions.
To help fulfill this goal, the Heber Valley Chamber of Commerce raised $17,000 through its annual golf tournament and through private donations to implement attractive welcome and wayfinding signage throughout the city. The new signs should be installed in the first quarter of 2018.
The next recommendation to improve the Main Street experience is to improve the signage and settings of our local businesses. Rather than display business signs in a way that parallels Main Street, businesses should hang their signs perpendicular to the passing traffic. This will create more awareness for local businesses. Adding flower pots, benches, and other inviting decorations will also attract new visitors. To help with this endeavor, the Heber Valley Chamber has raised money and will be offering grants to Main Street businesses to improve the appearance of their signs, window displays, and the facades of their buildings.
For people to enjoy Heber City’s Main Street, there must be a compelling reason to visit. Many of the existing businesses have done a wonderful job of generating traffic to their stores, however, more can be done to increase the community’s desire to shop downtown—it’s called critical mass. The basic concept of critical mass is that Heber City’s downtown needs to have a “mall mentality” where people have various shopping options within a small geographic area—ideally three linear blocks. This will cause people to spend more money locally and feel more confident about their shopping options. Unlike most malls, however, many of our businesses close their doors by 5 p.m. The result? People choose to shop elsewhere like Utah Valley and Park City. According to Brooks, most spending occurs after 6 p.m. For this to happen, Main Street in Heber City needs more dining, shopping, and cultural amenities. As more people shop in the downtown, many other issues will be resolved.
Rather than just trying to speed through Main Street, Heber City’s downtown should be a place where people want to gather. The city park on Main Street is a good example of why people visit the downtown, however, more gathering places are needed. Brooks identified having a public plaza as one of the ways to improve Main Street. This plaza could feature fountains, benches, artwork, stages, and other attractive amenities. Imagine a plaza surrounded by shops and boutiques. Would that cause more people to slow down and enjoy Main Street?
Like all major highways, the purpose of Main Street is to help people get from point A to point B. However, with Highway 40 also playing the role of Heber City’s Main Street, innovative approaches to directing traffic are needed. Consider how Main Street would look and feel if more people rode their bicycles. Imagine if more parking were available on or near Main Street. Picture in your mind how businesses would benefit if a walkable Main Street became a hub for economic activity, a place where people slowed down a bit to spend quality time instead of speeding through town.
So, what do we do about Main Street? Traffic congestion doesn’t seem to be improving anytime soon. What we can do, though, is invest into the necessary infrastructure on Main Street to provide people an experience they’ll enjoy—not just endure.