By J. Lynn West
A group of local residents and some out-of-towners had the opportunity this past week to learn how someone not familiar with New Albany sees it upon arriving for the first time.
The “First Impression” was provided by Dr. Joe Fratesi, Community Development Director for the Stennis Institute at Mississippi State University.
The First Impressions program is designed to “increase awareness of community strengths and opportunities,” he said, and started in the Center for Community Development at University of Wisconsin Extension and has spread throughout the country.
Fratesi said the program in Mississippi is funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission and New Albany is one of 10 towns participating. Basically, a group of anonymous people from a town not close visits unannounced, tours the town thoroughly, sometimes stopping to ask people questions, and note their impressions in a wide variety of categories. He likened it to the secret shopper program.
“They report what they saw and what their recommendations are,” Fratesi said. “How important are first impressions? Very!”
Fratesi quoted the mayor of Pelahatchie who said, “Your community can’t look like it’s going out of business,” and former MDA Director Leland Speed who summed it up as “Pretty sells and ugly don’t.”
The First Impressions visiting team usually considers about a dozen categories in recording what they see and think. They include entrances to a community, downtown, commercial districts, industrial areas, health care, schools, faith and religion, civic, residents and housing, public infrastructure, parks and recreation, and tourism.
Fratesi cautioned that what he was saying represented more of a snapshot of the community than an inventory.
Since people often look up a town on the Internet before visiting, especially if they plan to spend the night, dine, shop or look for special activities, New Albany’s on-line presence was the first area Fratesi looked at. He rated it positive that the city’s official website showed up on the first page of a Google search (adding that hardly anyone looks past the first page). He noted that the city and UCDA site appeared to have the same designer and, although not bad, could use some updating. The Main Street Association website is in the process of an update and he pointed out its cleaner, slightly more contemporary look.
Fratesi said New Albany is nearly unique in that it has four exits from Hwy. 78, and fortunate to do so. “You have plenty of good city limits signs,” he added, but not good signs giving directions to downtown in each case. “For most people, their only experience of New Albany is around Wal-Mart and the Hwy. 30 exit, not residential areas,” he said.
Many shopping areas such as the Wal-Mart area are “catered to the automobile,” Fratesi said, and used aerial photos to emphasize how unattractive a vast expanse of unbroken asphalt can be. He also showed how large areas could be broken up by curbs, landscaping, lighting and better delineated parking spaces.
“New Albany has a very diverse commercial development for its size,” he said, and noted that is particularly evident coming into town from Hwy. 30 by the hospital.
Fratesi said the intersection of Hwy. 15 North and Hwy. 30 East is very important, but almost barren in some respects while also exhibiting empty, abandoned buildings.
“Sometimes just cleaning up helps,” he said.
Fratesi called the lack of curbs in some parts of town unsafe since it allows more random traffic flow. “And it prevents landscaping some,” he said, although too many curb cuts are dangerous, too.
Fratesi thinks much of the town can benefit from landscaping. “Landscaping softens commercial areas,” he said.
While he recognizes the importance and value of signs, they can present “visual clutter” in some parts of town. “It’s something you can get control of, if you want to,” he said.
Fratesi said how your bring people downtown is very important. “You can have a good downtown, but an unpleasant experience getting there,” he said.
The intersection in the middle of town where Tanglefoot Trail begins is also important, he said, but recommended curbs and cuts instead of just white line markings and also noted some accessibility issues.
“The pocket park (Cooper Park) is good but it would be nice if you had more restaurants downtown,” he said.
Fratesi did not think as well of New Albany’s parking habits. “Parking in the middle of the street is just weird and unsafe…do not allow it,” he said.
In connection with middle-of-the-street parking, Fratesi said, “Most towns don’t suffer from a lack of parking, but rather a lack of parking management.” He said New Albany has other nearby parking areas that could be used instead. “Spread whatever you do on Bankhead to other areas,” he added.
Fratesi thinks the railroad overpass on Main Street, now part of Tanglefoot Trail, has potential for improvement as well as does the triangle on Highland by the old shirt factory.
“Dealing with streets and infrastructure is just taking care of business,” Fratesi said, and also said he really likes our period street signs all over town. He said you can do a lot toward maintaining sidewalks with a bucket of paint and some Roundup, but repairing street ripples, reducing the number of light poles and screening trash containers may require more effort.
“You have a tremendous number of assets,” he said, but we need better directional wayfaring signs to point visitors to these assets.
He was impressed with the sportsplex and other parks in the area. “That kind of effort is a really good sign,” he said and added that the visiting team said they wished they had something like this in their town. “I am really excited about Tanglefoot Trail,” he said.
Wrapping up, Fratesi said the challenges that New Albany face include limited resources, redeveloping older commercial areas, establishing and enforcing signage and design guidelines, continuing downtown improvement, community engagement, involvement and pride, and finding a common vision to get everyone on the same page.
Positives he sees include regional growth, the amount of historic housing, the main street, commercial development mix, recreational opportunities, the regional hospital, the Northeast at New Albany campus and Tanglefoot Trail.
Fratesi will continue to work with New Albany and said the next steps include having a community action team, outlining goals, tapping into state and regional revenue for help and sending participants to a Yourtown, Miss. Workshop.
Fratesi said, “A community can be shaped by chance or choice,” and said New Albany needs to do what it wants rather than taking what it gets.”
“When is the best time to plant an oak tree? Fifty years ago. When is the next best time? Today.”