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Devils Lake survey bolsters support for downtown development

DEVILS LAKE — Organizers with the Downtown Devils Lake Initiative say the results of a recent communitywide survey show strong support for efforts to revitalize the city's core.

Devils Lake Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Paula Vistad said the number of survey participants alone shows a high level of commitment.

"We're really excited about it. We encourage all things — foot traffic, historic preservation, mixed uses and nightlife," Vistad said. "The really positive part of the survey was we had close to 700 respond. That's huge. That's saying our community obviously is standing behind this revitalization effort."

Jonathan Holth, a Grand Forks consultant hired by the chamber, said that number represents about 10 percent of the city's population.

"They're really committed to it," he said. "And the mayor has said a number of times he wants to be the poster child for the governor's Main Street Initiative. That's pretty huge for their community."

Specifically, Holth said the survey found 90 percent either strongly or somewhat agreed "creating a vision and plan for downtown is a worthwhile project for Devils Lake."

And 86 percent either strongly or somewhat agreed "maintaining and improving downtown is a worthwhile use of public investment."

"That's good, and it makes the job of elected officials easier," Holth said. "It allows them to use this data when they're making decisions. They will be able to say, 'Look, this isn't just me. This is what the community wanted.'"

The 12-question online survey also allowed residents to weigh in on other questions or statements:

• "A successful downtown is important for the success of the community." (33 and 53 percent, respectively, somewhat or strongly agreed; a combined 8 percent strongly or somewhat disagreed.)

• On a scale of 1 to 10, with zero "we have no control" and 10 "we have full control," residents gave an average rating of 6 when asked about the community's ability to control downtown's destiny.

• Almost 70 percent said they had been city residents for more than 15 years. Another 13 percent reported seven to 15 years.

• About 34 percent said they spend time downtown once a week, followed by about 20 percent answering either daily or two to three times a week. Seventeen percent spend time downtown only once a month.

• 60 percent said they always feel safe downtown and 39 percent said they sometimes feel safe.

• About 79 percent said the downtown should be designed for residents, while 21 percent said it should be designed for tourists.

"We are a huge hunting and fishing destination, and we do bring a large number of tourists to the area," said Suzie Kenner, executive director of Devils Lake Tourism. She added, however, that downtown always is a good place to start.

"You want to build your downtown for your community first, and your visitors will follow your lead," she said. "When I visit somewhere else, I look for that local flair. I want to go where the locals go."

When residents were asked how important different types of development were for downtown, three categories came out on top: student/youth offerings, restaurants/nightlife and events. Public gathering space/parks and ease of walkability also ranked high.

Holth said many survey participants offered their ideas and feedback.

"We were definitely happy with the fact people were willing to share their ideas," he said. "Throughout this process we've found there's no shortage of great ideas in Devils Lake. Our job really is to elevate those ideas and find ways to bring them to fruition."

Many of the ideas mirror those discussed in community focus groups and on the 12-person committee tasked with making final recommendations to the city. Holth and Vistad said the positive feedback reinforces community support for downtown development.

The committee soon will prepare its report with plans to present it to city leaders by April.

"We will try to make as many requests to the city as we can and see that those requests get made," Vistad said. "We'll try to be the voice for the people."