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The battle for Main Street

American Fork and city business leaders look for funds to help area

AMERICAN FORK — Massive commercial developments such as The Meadows may have moved the economic heart of American Fork to the city's outskirts, but the battle for the city's soul is being fought downtown on Main Street.

It's a familiar story: Big-box developments such as Super Wal-Mart and Home Depot provide welcome boosts to local tax revenues. Some Utah Valley residents, however, worry about what that is doing to smaller, locally owned businesses along Main Street.

"Downtown is one of the most fragile areas in the economic development of a city," said Linda Walton, Main Street Manager in American Fork.

As the sprawling Meadows development continues to expand, some merchants have bypassed downtown for warmer economic climes in the new development.

The Meadows started with two stores — Wal-Mart and Home Depot — when it launched in 2002. Now, it houses dozens of businesses, including a Starbucks, banks, a movie theater, restaurants, bookstores and pet shops.

As a result, some Main Street businesses, like the old True Value Hardware store, have closed.

However, many insist, Main Street is by no means in its death throes.

Walton said the occupancy rate is still very high — five of downtown's 75 business sites are vacant — but the fear is that the ever-accelerating growth rate in the north county area will make the situation worse if proactive steps are not taken.

And the stores of Main Street, from the bookstores to the karate dojos to the auto parts stores — most of them locally owned — would be the ones to suffer.

To the end of revitalizing Main Street, a number of businesses in American Fork came together a few years ago to form Downtown American Fork Inc.

The city also joined the state's Main Street Program, which provides cities with strategies for updating and protecting their Main Street, from architectural and streetscape advice to attracting new business. The program also has limited funds available to make matching grants for cities for downtown improvements.

But some American Fork business leaders are frustrated with the overall lack of progress on the project. The City Council, they say, is doing nothing.

Walton said she has been "baffled" by the City Council's lack of response to three proposals submitted by Downtown American Fork Inc. That inaction, she said, combined with the continuing growth of the Meadows, is putting Main Street in precarious position.

"The City Council has been quite slow to react," said Debby Lauret, director of the American Fork Chamber of Commerce. "I'm not sure what the thinking is and why. It's been over a year since the plan was presented, and we haven't heard back. I think a year is plenty of time to react, and we're hoping to hear from them soon. There has been kind of a budget crunch, and that may be a factor."

Not a factor, but the factor, said City Councilman Jimmie Cates.

"It isn't just the (Downtown American Fork) plans, it's the financing," Cates said. "The plans were not necessarily turned down, but there were no funds available. You don't really have complete harmony in the business district either; there are a few who don't agree with the plans. You can't really fault one side or the other."

Bim Oliver, the coordinator of the Utah Main Street Program, agreed that there isn't anyone to blame for the seemingly slow progress.

"I wouldn't say the City Council has been unfair," Oliver said. "I think American Fork has had a lot of good people involved. We've had good participation in from both the business community and the local government."

Like in other cities where a Main Street plan has been a success — Payson, Richfield and Logan, among others — Oliver said the challenge in American Fork has been reaching a consensus on how to best help the downtown area.

The fact that American Fork is growing so quickly, he said, makes reaching an agreement even more difficult because there are so many more competing needs.

For example, American Fork's water system is operating near capacity. City leaders are looking at expanding the present system or installing a secondary system, a project that will cost millions. Cates said that was just one of many pressing needs that have limited the funds for the downtown project, but he said the council was impressed by some of the plans it has seen and remains determined to help the downtown area.

But some business owners say the city should still be doing more. One of them, Downtown American Fork Inc. President Heber Thompson, is so sure that more can be done that he's running for mayor.

"There has clearly not been enough done," he said. "When The Meadows and other big-box developments came in, there were quite a few tax and fee considerations given to those developers, yet the small-town merchant doesn't get any significant tax considerations when he wants to restore or upgrade his business. The local government doesn't come through with anything for them."

Thompson said he is not against the arrival of big business in American Fork, as those stores serve a need for many of the town's residents, but insists that smaller business owners should "be on a level playing field" with the big stores.

Lauret agreed that, from the Chamber of Commerce's perspective, big-box developments are welcome, but the city needs to protect its smaller businesses, as well.

"We welcome all economic development," Lauret said. "We just want to make sure our downtown doesn't suffer."

Lauret said the key to keeping the downtown area alive is giving people a reason to go there. By encouraging specialty stores and restaurants, she said, the downtown area can serve a different market.

How to best revitalize downtown remains a topic for debate. Some push architectural overhauls, some push better streets and parking, others push tax breaks for business owners. But all involved agree that saving Main Street is important to the city as a whole.

"From a civic perspective, there's a lot of history downtown," Walton said. "A lot of our civic buildings are there, we have our parades down there, our carnival is down there, and we decorate the area at Christmas. Downtown provides the civic center or heart of a city."

Thompson said preserving the downtown area is part of preserving American Fork's rich heritage.

"If you have a city that has grown up with a lot of tradition, as our city has, you should maintain it and build upward on it," he said.