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Independence revitalization plan revealed

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Ideas include park, artisan/farmers market and stage

By Patrick Smith

INDEPENDENCE — Independence was recently selected as one of only seven towns in the region to receive a sustainable communities grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, which will allow for improvements to be made to the town’s overall appearance in an attempt to attract more tourists and entrepreneurs.
To meet that goal, the town will explore the possibility of purchasing the McKnight Lot across from the 1908 Courthouse at the intersection of U.S. 58 and Highway 21. Plans call for building an artisan and farmers’ market, complete with covered vending booths, a gazebo and a stage for community concerts and events.

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Recently, citizens and town leaders met with a technical assistance team made up of officials from the ARC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and consultants from Renaissance Planning Group to discuss those plans.
The day after the meeting, the group began to finalize their plans and consultants presented some of their ideas to the public.
Renaissance project manager Jason Espie used a powerpoint presentation to demonstrate how similar projects in other rural communities have proven to be successful. He said the Independence project will follow a four-point approach that will emphasize partnerships with stakeholders, the promotion of a positive image, the creation of an appealing and safe atmosphere and strengthening the existing economy.
Espie showed examples of successful past projects in Hot Springs, Ark.; Uniontown, Pa.; and Hamburg, N.Y. — all of which are also rural Appalachian towns.
Each town chose to take different approaches to their revitalization projects, but Espie played up the positive impact a community park/farmers’ market and concert area provided for each of the towns.
After Espie finished his portion of the presentation, Alan Steinbeck of Renaissance spoke about his suggestions to improve road safety and overall community appearance. He advocated widened street lanes, sidewalks and medians as proven ways to improve both road safety and appearance.
He also shared pictures he had taken from different locations around Independence and offered his suggestions about how to make the town more appealing to tourists.
Steinbeck noted the disjointed sidewalks and damaged street signs as one concern, and he suggested placing more hedgerows between sidewalks and parking lots.
He also suggested potential projects for the future, like burying or relocating power lines on Main Street and painting and refurbishing buildings.  
One concern shared by both Steinbeck and citizens was the street crossing at the intersection of U.S. 58 and Highway 21. Steinbeck suggested installing a traffic island, but town officials rejected the idea, saying that too many large trucks regularly travel through Independence, and that the drivers already struggle to make the sharp turns to and from Main Street the way it is currently set up.
However, the group did decide that a new pedestrian crossing at the light is an improvement they would like to look into as part of the overall project.  
After a short intermission, a smaller group made up of town officials and the Renaissance representatives reconvened to decide a date for the next project workshop, to name the newly formed committee that will oversee the project and to name the future market/community park area.
The group decided it would be called the Independence Community Initiative (ICI), with the tagline “a park, a market, a foundation for the future.”
ICI decided it would hold the next conference call followup meeting with the consultants on Dec. 11.
No name was chosen for the future site of the artisan and farmers’ market, but it will be decided in one of their upcoming meetings.  
The next step for ICI is to compose a proposal to present to Independence Town Council at Tuesday night’s meeting, but no construction date could be provided until the town looks into purchasing of the McKnight Lot.