Downtown merchants handily dismissed a rendering submitted by a volunteer. They also expressed disappointment that the views and input of the downtown business community weren’t solicited earlier in the process.
The enduring centerpiece of street festivals, political rallies, Friday night summer concerts and other town square gatherings, the gazebo was not only getting worn around the edges, but wasn’t as functional as it should be.
A rendering of a new gazebo presented at a town meeting came as a surprise to nearby shopkeepers, prompting a flurry of criticisms about the appearance of the proposed design.
“That area is the center of the universe as far as Franklin is concerned. We need to be very careful when we put something there that it is something we can be proud of for years and years to come,” Mayor Bob Scott said. He is agrees with merchants that the process should have been more inclusionary.
“Everybody probably has some ideas, and there are probably some very good ones out there,” Scott said, advocating for the town to work collectively with the merchants on a new gazebo design.
The first go at a design evokes a sense of formality, involving a small stained glass window, white pillars and a cupola, deemed “more fitting for a wedding than a bluegrass show,” according to one critic.
Complaints over the design built steam on a community Facebook page, with a flurry of posts in recent weeks. A handful of shopkeepers repeated their concerns at a town meeting last week, offering suggestions on how to remake the structure into something that embodies what they perceive as part of the essence of Franklin.
One shopkeeper, Sandy Pantaleo, who runs nearby Main Street Coffee & Tea with her husband, said in an interview that she is “unhappy and displeased” with the appearance of the proposed gazebo, which she said came across as “closed, reserved and dated.”
A timber-frame design with a rustic style, she and others told town leaders, would better reflect the identity of the town and its environs. Others emphasized sustainability, calling on town leaders to postpone plans for a makeover for further consideration.
The unsolicited suggestions led town leaders to agree to organize a kind of contest among shopkeepers and other downtown business owners for alternatives. They are expected to come up with a framework to review any new conceptual drawings when they meet again in March, along with a time frame for the project.
“Let’s get more ideas than just one,” said Mayor Bob Scott. Scott said he, too, would like to see a more rustic, mountain look. “I am no architect, but I don’t think it fits in with what we want Franklin to look like.”
While they encouraged creativity, some cautioned against extravagance.
“We have to stay within the realm of what we can afford to do,” Alderwoman Joyce Handley said, warning against “doing something that looks wonderful but has no use to anybody.”
The gazebo plans weren’t forged in a vacuum. Input was sought during the design process, just not from the at-large Main Street merchant community.
Linda Schlott, the town’s Main Street Coordinator, was serving as a liaison to coordinate input from a psuedo-gazebo committee, which included musicians, festival organizers and members of the town’s official Main Street Program — a more limited pool of stakeholders.
The town has set aside about $50,000 for the gazebo in its 2013-14 budget.
But some suggested that the town is rushing through such plans without seeking financial support from outside sources.
“This is an iconic piece of our town,” said Angela Hubbs Moore, a businesswoman in town. She suggested that the town turn to the public for input and possible investments. “We’re missing the opportunity to look for less traditional routes.”
Despite the backlash, reluctance among shopkeepers over the proposed design was in some ways expected, Town Manager Warren Cabe said.
“It was a good starting point,” he said of the rendering, dismissing any suggestion that the town had sought to quietly advance the plans as a way to speed up the process by avoiding public input.
At the same time, he acknowledged the subjectivity of such a project, adding that whatever the town selects as the final design will likely have at least some critics.
“You’re not going to make everybody happy,” he said at the last meeting.
Criticism of the drawing highlights a lingering disconnect between at least some shopkeepers and the town’s Main Street Program.
The Main Street Program spearheads promotional initiatives for downtown Franklin, from putting on street festivals to beautification through flowers in summer and holiday decorations in winter.
Designated as a nonprofit, the program is financed largely by the town, operating with a $90,000 budget this year, according to town financial records. That includes the salary of its only employee, Linda Schlott, who serves as its executive director and is advised by a nine-member board of directors.
It has drawn complaints over the past couple of years from shopkeepers who make up a grassroots group, called Venture Local, that has sought to introduce new ideas to improve the downtown economy but has encountered stumbling blocks. They maintain that the Main Street leaders have not heeded their ideas — however few — that they say represent the majority of business owners.
The last big dispute between merchants and the Main Street Program centered around a series of Friday night block parties to get people downtown. Merchants were reprimanded for failing to get proper permission to block the street, string banners and put up tents. They in turn accused the town and the Main Street Program of not being supportive or receptive to new ideas.
“It’s not what it used to be,” Pantaleo, the coffee shop co-owner, said of downtown. “Everyone needs to come up with some new ideas.”
Schlott, of the Main Street program, has maintained that she shares such views.
“A lot of new ideas are a good thing,” she said. She cited so-called visioning forums she has arranged as a way to improve communication between the town and its shopkeepers. “We’re willing to work with anybody.”