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Votes

Pedestrian Vision for Village Center

Local business owners and professionals express a desire for walkable commercial district in Great Falls.

Kurt Laubinger was ecstatic when his teenage son informed him that he was interested in getting a part-time job in the Great Falls Village Center. However, Laubinger realized his son would have to be driven to and from such a job — a task which seemed almost silly, given their close proximity to the Village Center.

"My son wants to get a job in the Village Center, but the idea that we have to drive him up here everyday because he can't walk a mile and a half is disturbing," said Laubinger at a recent focus group meeting for local business owners and professionals in Great Falls.

Laubinger grew up in McLean and is a graduate of Langley High School. He currently resides in Great Falls and runs his own financial service and investment business. Like many residents, Laubinger longs for a community that is more pedestrian-friendly.

"I share the concern that the community has with the walk-ability of the area," said Laubinger.

Real estate broker Doris Leadbetter has been living and working in Great Falls for over 20 years. Her RE/MAX Gateway office is located in the Colvin Run shopping center, but ironically, she cannot get to Colvin Run Mill unless she drives there in her car.

"There are over 70 businesses in Colvin Run center," said Leadbetter at the same focus group meeting. "Wouldn't it be nice to be able to walk to the Mill just from our area? There is no sidewalk in front of the shopping center... the trails I think are a big issue because it's very dangerous to cross the street when people are barreling through there at 50 miles per hour on Colvin Run."

In the fall of 2006, the Great Falls Citizens Association (GFCA) put together a "2020 Vision Project" committee. Members of the committee spent the latter half of the year researching and gathering community input on what kind of community residents would like Great Falls to be by the year 2020. This multi-month research project will continue into the spring of 2007, and the 2020 Vision Project committee hopes to have a strong sense of a future vision for Great Falls before the start of summer this year.

AS PART of the project, 2020 Vision Project committee members have been conducting small focus groups at the Great Falls Community Library. Members of the local business and professional community gathered in the library's community meeting room last month to provide their input on ways in which the Great Falls community can improve in the coming years.

Mike Kearney, owner of the Old Brogue Irish Pub, also expressed a desire for a business center that is easily traversed on foot.

"You can't walk around this town," said Kearney. "You're driving from one center to the other, and you can't walk across Georgetown Pike ... we need to try to make the town center more user-friendly, because even though we're in a close-knit area, it's sort of destination shopping. I'd just like to see it a little more unified."

Kearney said that a commercial district with a variety of businesses, all of which are easily accessed on foot, would thrive.

"To keep it vital you have to have a mix of different merchandise, stores, restaurants and small shops — and there needs to be foot traffic," said Kearney. "Right now you have a lot of different places here, but they don't all come together."

Bob Lundegard has lived in Great Falls since 1970, and is a member of the Colvin Run Mill Historical Society. Lundegard attended the Great Falls 2020 Vision Project focus group for seniors, as well as the business and professional focus group meeting.

"My vision of this community in 2020 involves it flourishing as a town with businesses and offices and everything connected with trails and sidewalks, and servicing all of its citizens — seniors and young people as well," said Lundegard. "I think the key to success in implementing this vision is the business community. It has to flourish and it has to grow, and to accomplish this, we have to solve the sewer problem."

THE "SEWER PROBLEM" is the dilemma over how to best handle the Great Falls Village Center's failing septic system. Many of the Village Center's high water users, such as the Great Falls Volunteer Fire Department and the Old Brogue, are currently using a pump and haul system to handle their excess waste. In addition, until the septic issue is resolved, there is a moratorium on any additional high water users leasing space in the Village Center.

"High water users are businesses that use 50 gallons or more a day, which is not much," said Kearney. "So for now, there can be no more hair salons, doctors or dentists."

Some residents and business owners feel that the introduction of a sewer line is the only viable solution, while others want to explore alternative options in order to protect the Great Falls commercial district from the additional development that would be permitted with the installation of a sewer system.

Commercial real estate developer and local resident Wayne Foley is a proponent of sewer. He says that residents must find a solution soon because "as water use becomes a problem, we could start to lose a lot of the businesses that we've become comfortable with."

"In the Village Center and the school [Great Falls Elementary] we have varying degrees of septic system failure — it's not if they're going to fail, it's when are they going to fail," said Foley. "If we don't do something about it, if we don't face up to it, the entire community is going to suffer the consequences."

The Great Falls Citizens Association Waste Water Management subcommittee has been investigating alternative solutions, and plans to have state and county experts go over such options at next month's General Session meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 13, at 7:30 p.m. at the Great Falls Grange. Residents are encouraged to attend.