Our View: Changing views key to growth downtown

When it comes to many aspects of life, perception basically becomes reality.

The public’s view of Winchester’s downtown offers a perfect example.

For a recent Closer Look article, The Sun asked readers on social media what they feel are the biggest challenges facing the city’s downtown and the efforts to revitalize the business district.

The response was tremendous — and eye-opening — reaching more than 7,000 people and sparking more than 125 comments.

The feedback was diverse but also not unexpected, running the gamut from accessibility to the need for more businesses to safety improvements and everything in between.

Although much progress has been made and many positive things are happening along Main Street and nearby, the fact is there seems to be a significant disconnect between how citizens perceive the downtown and what city officials say the reality is.

Parking is one key example, with many saying it is a deterrent to visiting but those in charge of promoting the downtown countering that there is adequate parking that requires less walking than going to a big box retailer or a mall.

The biggest perception issue clearly centers on the idea that downtown is unsafe or filled with individuals selling drugs or committing other crimes, something law enforcement officials contend as being overblown or exaggerated.

This juxtaposition of viewpoints on these issues and others creates a clear path for city leaders to address some of these challenges by taking tangible steps focused on changing the perception.

Better promoting the municipal parking lots, consistent enforcement of time limits on street parking and development of a dedicated lot for employees of downtown businesses would be potential solutions.

When it comes to the perception that drug use and crime is at heightened levels in the downtown district, the only way to address this is by increasing patrols and have a constant visible presence. Foot patrols and bicycle officers would go along way toward changing the public image while also sending a message that criminal activity won’t be tolerated here.

Developing a downtown master plan that was built off of feedback from the community was critical. Implementing it will be even more so.

But understanding how citizens and visitors perceive Winchester’s downtown is another significant step and offers another clear destination point on the road map toward revitalization.