How downtown Farmington grew a heart

Eleven years ago, a community visioning consultant asked Farmington residents and stakeholders where the heart of their downtown was. No one had an answer. Because there wasn't one. So, years before "placemaking" became a buzzword, they set about making such a place. And while it may have taken the greater part of a decade for Sundquist Pavilion in Riley Park to be conceived, and developed, none of the thousands of weekly visitors to what is now undeniably the heart of downtown Farmington seem to mind. 

Today, the park hosts a weekly Farmington Farmers and Artisans Market  that has nearly outgrown the three-quarters-of-an-acre park, weekly swing dancing lessons, ice skating in the winter, free weekly concerts in the summer and the community's annual Founders Festival, which attracts 1,500-2,000 visitors each year, among other events. 

"We are getting to a place where it is very active, with programmed and un-programmed activity," says Annettee Kowles, executive director of the Farmington Downtown Development Authority. "It's typically ground zero for things such as the farmers market and arts events."

Not too shabby for a former parking lot. 

A shared vision

The transformation was truly a community project. It began, as Farmington City Manager Vince Pastue says, any major city development should: with a vision for the community created by the community. 

Looking back, downtown Farmington felt a lot different than it does today. The farmers market was held in a parking lot. The summer concerts weren't centrally located, nor particularly well-lit, and attracted much smaller crowds than the 300 to 700 people who regularly attend now.

"Other events were held in parking lots or they weren't held at all," Knowles says.

Even before that 2003 meeting when the need for a central downtown hub was identified, a community visioning program in 1998 had already established the need for a pavilion for the farmer's market. This, for which the community had already been raising funds, and the central hub idea were then incorporated into a new community project: a downtown master plan led by the Farmington DDA's design committee. 

A community effort

Farmington residents did more than just come up with the idea; they helped bring it to life. With $475,000 donated between two large donors for the park and pavilion and more raised by smaller donations, a significant chunk of the $2 million park project belonged directly to the community. 

"The best part of it is there's buy-in," Pastue says. "If the community has a strong sense of ownership, they are committed to its success."

The Farmington DDA design committee was also deeply involved with the planning and design of the park, along with paid consultants. This, says Pastue, resulted in a higher quality park than one designed by dollar-driven city officials like himself, who would likely have chosen less costly amenities that wouldn't have resulted in the same aesthetic, such as cement sidewalks over the distinctive brick pavers that bring so much charm to the space. 

"We've got great volunteers in Farmington, not just their talents but their engagement and commitment to the community," he says. "They really ensured that what we were doing to do was top rate, high-quality and it was my job to figure out how we pay for it."

A true downtown space

Sundquist Pavilion and Riley Park didn't fulfill that vision of becoming the true heart of downtown Farmington the moment work was completed in 2005. Like many of the placemaking projects we hear about today, it was never intended to be an overnight success, but to grow organically into the community. 

"In the short run we knew that we were going to have the farmers market there. And we didn't anticipate we didn't grow to the extent that it did. And we had summer ."

But slowly, more events began to migrate to the park, and then, once they got there, they just grew and grew. 

"It wasn't like a switch was flipped and suddenly everything was there," says Knowles. "Our Harvest Moon celebration started out as a one-night event, and we might have had a couple hundred people over one night. It has grown to a two-night event where we generally have 1,500 to 2,000 people." 

Back when Farmington community members were dreaming up a pavilion for their farmers market in 1998, just a handful of vendors participated. Now, the market hosts 40 to 45 each week. Last year, a refrigerated ice skating rink gave the park a fourth season function. Organizations totally unaffiliated with the city use the space for their own events. From his city hall office, Pastue says the impact of the park is evident simply from the number of people who now wander through Farmington.

"Twelve years ago we were a shopping center trying to call itself a downtown," he says. "Now, we're functioning more like a downtown."

What's the difference? Those in Farmington might say it's all about having a heart. 

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, development news editor for Concentrate and IMG project editor.