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Square upgrades were initiated for safety

Mary Hinds maryhinds@lebanondemocrat.com • Updated Jul 26, 2013 at 9:59 PM

Anyone who's taken their courage in both hands to enter the traffic circle or use a crosswalk on the Lebanon Town Square can attest to how scary it can be.

To address the issue, Mayor Philip Craighead made an effort over the past year to work with the Tennessee Department of Transportation to come up with a plan to upgrade the square to make it safer for drivers and pedestrians, with most of the upgrades being paid for with TDOT safety grants.

While the state was willing to spend the money for the safety improvements, the city moved to upgrade the aesthetics of the square at the same time.

Now, some business owners on the square are complaining the proposed changes will harm their businesses, they weren't consulted about the changes and their voices are not being heard.

Wilson County Chamber of Commerce president Sue Vanatta is mystified how anyone can claim the plan for the square is a surprise and no chance was given for input.

"We held two or three meetings here at the chamber," she said. "Rick Smith and I went to all the businesses nearby and asked them to attend. I know Mayor Craighead had at least one meeting at City Hall and [state Rep.] Mark Pody had a meeting with TDOT here as well. How can anyone say they were not consulted? It was well publicized."

Since keeping businesses prospering is the business of the chamber, Vanatta doesn't understand how anyone would think she would support a plan that would undermine businesses on the Square.

"If I thought there was any way this would undermine business, I wouldn't be supporting it," she said, adding the entire project began because of safety concerns.

"We held 751 meetings in our building last year, with 15-20 people per meeting," Vanatta said, noting the chamber office is on the Square. "I never heard one person say anything negative about the project. I did hear several people say 'somebody is going to get killed.'"

She said other plans to improve safety did not solve the problem in the past, including a constant police presence or attempts to enforce the 15 mph speed limit. As for complaints that parking in the new scheme would be dangerous and difficult, Vanatta says it would be no different that in other shopping venues.

"When people shop at Walmart, they don't park right in front of the door, and that doesn't stop people from going there," she said. "With the new plan, TDOT has designed the parking areas so parking is angled to increase safety."  

Pody was among the people in favor of upgrading traffic safety on the Square. He held a meeting last year with local politicians, people who own businesses on the Square and TDOT officials to discuss possible upgrades and what funds would be available for them. Pody said he has an office on the Square and he had seen firsthand what the problems are. At that meeting, several people and business owners asked questions, but none stated they were opposed to the plan.

"We are all trying to get the square revitalized," Pody said at the time. "It's not as safe as we need it to be. I've almost been hit — I know. This is a danger issue."

Brian Hurst with TDOT attended several meetings in Lebanon, where he said his department would be conducting a safety audit to determine safety, design, car and pedestrian traffic and crash patterns before his department comes up with a viable improvement plan. He noted at the time the importance of getting input from everyone involved before coming up with a plan. Hurst also told local official that the project would be paid for primarily by state funds set aside for such projects. After analyzing the audit findings, TDOT provided several scenarios to address safety issues. The one that found favor was the one that sacrificed the fewest parking places.

While the plans for upgrading safety are on the drawing board at TDOT, people at businesses along the Square feel if the real issue is safety, then simpler solutions are best.

Roger Bennett is a master barber at Ideal Barber Shop on the Square. He has an easy solution to slow people down.

"I think all they need to do is put up speed bumps," he said. "That would slow it down."

Bennett said another problem Square businesses have with the plan is delivery trucks would no longer be able to service those businesses by parking at front.

But the city wants to upgrade the entire Square while safety improvements are being done to save costs and have the area under construction only once. Those improvements in lighting and landscaping, along with the renovations to the Capitol Theatre and the revamping of the Arcade, were expected to make the Lebanon Square a destination for dining and shopping to draw people to the heart of Lebanon. The plan was to allow the city of take advantage of it's unique feature - it's history and historic architecture.

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