Residents offer ideas for downtown project

Robert Smith rsmith@pawhuskajournalcapital.com

Kihekah Avenue property and business owners commented in a meeting last week on a preliminary plan for a downtown Pawhuska streetscape grant project that could begin construction in early 2020 and is likely to have a budget well in excess of a million dollars.

Landscape architect R.L. Shears of Tulsa presented a group of approximately 25 people with background information on the project and an image of what changes to the Main Street/Kihekah Avenue area could look like. Property and business owners responded by providing Shears with alternative scenarios.

The process of acting on the grant selection has been long and, at times, apparently uncertain. Shears told his audience Oct. 17 at city hall that Pawhuska was selected in 2010 for a Transportation Enhancement Grant, but the grant selections were shelved. The grant was awarded in 2015, and Pawhuska learned about it in 2016. The original project amount, including both grant funds and match (the ratio was 70 percent grant to 30 percent local match) was about $680,000, according to Shears.

The amount of downtown space covered by the project has since grown slightly, and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation has agreed to help cover the remainder of the overall cost (the amount over $680,000) — at a ratio of 80 percent grant to 20 percent local match.

The tentative schedule for project activities includes advertising for bids in September 2019, receiving bids the next month, and awarding a contract that November. Once construction begins — perhaps in February or March 2020 — construction is estimated to take 5-6 months.

Pawhuska’s City Manager Larry Eulert has been concerned about finding ways to reduce the overall inconvenience to downtown businesses, so that the community’s economic development isn’t harmed.

City councilor Steve Holcombe, who owns and is renovating the old Journal-Capital building, encouraged Shears to post online the background information about the project, so that it can be readily reviewed by interested parties.

Shears said he anticipated that the concept he presented might cause the loss of a few downtown parking spaces, but he clarified he thinks there are enough parking lots downtown that parking shouldn’t be a big issue.

During a portion of the discussion, Shears said he didn’t see why The Pioneer Woman Mercantile couldn’t use Sixth Street as an unloading point for tour buses, rather than the buses stopping on Kihekah Avenue to let passengers off.

Kihekah Avenue property owner Eric Gomez expressed skepticism about Shears’ inclusion of trees in his conceptual image.

“I personally don’t like trees in front of buildings and you’ve put these trees in front of my building,” Gomez said. He owns a building between Osage Outfitters and the Gambill law office building. “I personally don’t ever want trees in front of my building.”

Gomez said he preferred art installations to the planting of trees.

Holcombe, who took into account that an element of Shears’ concept is to focus on Pawhuska’s history, commented that he didn’t know of any trees downtown after the construction of the Triangle Building (now the Frontier Hotel) in about 1913-14. He added Stillwater had problems with pear trees it used in a project.

Another aspect of Shears’ concept that drew comment was the possibility of bricking the street surface. Gomez said the use of brick could be “a pothole nightmare; a maintenance fiasco.”

Shears replied he had seen both bad and good projects using brick for a street surface.

An alternative concept that was described for Shears would involve turning Kihekah Avenue, beyond Sixth Street, into a pedestrian plaza where bronze statues — for instance, statues of an oilman, an indian and a cowboy — might be installed. The idea would be to create a greater sense of identity for Pawhuska, and to encourage visitors to downtown to park in lots situated away from the street and then walk into the retail area.

“I think it’s a viable option,” Shears said.

Business owner Addie Roanhorse suggested another alternative — that a public plaza could be created on the portion of Kihekah Avenue on the west side of the Triangle Building, and the portion of Kihekah that runs between the Triangle Building and The Pioneer Woman Mercantile could be be one-way. Traffic headed toward Main on Kihekah would turn left at Sixth Street.

“We’ll take a look at it,” Shears responded.

Business owner Scott Trotter expressed interest in whether increased use of parking areas to the south of Main Street would warrant the creation of a crosswalk of some kind across Main Street (State Highway 60).

Shears said he could have the traffic studied again to see what might be possible within state guidelines. Main Street is also a state highway, so anything that would potentially modify or interrupt the flow of traffic would be subject to state approval.

Barbara Jacques, owner of Pierce Arrow, said she thinks visitors need a place to sit and rest and be refreshed.

“I’m excited to death that we’re going to do something,” she said.

In an interview following the session, Gomez said he is doubtful that the idea of having people park away from Kihekah Avenue is going to be a good one. A former Tulsa city councilor, he said the idea did not work well in the Brookside area of Tulsa.

“I understand the lofty goal of wanting somebody to walk in front of somebody else’s shop,” he said, but he argued that many shoppers want to park as close as they can to the business where they want to buy something.

He also said he has reservations about any plan to mandate that tour buses bringing visitors to The Pioneer Woman Mercantile let their passengers off on Sixth Street rather than Kihekah.

“Walking from Sixth Street to Main Street is a big deal for some people,” he said, observing that many people taking tours are older and may not be in shape for much walking, especially after spending a number of hours on a bus.