Grand Junction’s Main attraction
A half-century after the completion of downtown's dramatic face-lift, the impact of Operation Foresight remains evident
Fifty years ago, Grand Junction threw a big party for itself to celebrate a signature accomplishment — one that commanded the attention of the entire nation and continues to draw inquiries from places as far away as Eastern Europe.
Twelve national newspapers and 10 professional journals carried the story.
More than 120 municipalities in 32 states clamored for information about Grand Junction’s remarkable achievement in hopes of replicating it in their own cities.
Look’s West Coast editor, Stanley Gordon, flew into town to present Grand Junction Mayor Ed McCormick with the All-America City award, one of 11 presented by the magazine in 1963.
Gov. John Love came to pay tribute, as did Lewis Duamon, president of Frontier Airlines, and Gus Aydelott, president of Rio Grande Railroad.
None came to see Hattie Cooper of Carbondale, mother of astronaut Gordon Cooper, whose Mercury capsule splashed down the day before the party. Thanks to NASA, however, a replica of the capsule was displayed at Lincoln Park for “mini-Gordos” to explore.
The engineering feat that won the award and caused such a stir — the distinctive, tree-lined, serpentine track known as Main Street — still draws thousands each year to stroll and shop and ogle the artwork.
In fact, 73 percent of visitors to the area in 2012 toured downtown, more than those who visited Colorado National Monument or Palisade wine country, according to a survey conducted by the Grand Junction Visitor and Convention Bureau.
Those who conceived Operation Foresight, the plan that saved downtown, are mostly gone now, but the seeds they planted five decades ago continue to grow at the heart of the city.
BEFORE OPERATION FORESIGHT
At the dawn of the 1960s, small children and old people found it hard to navigate the tall, concrete curbs that edged Main Street.
Out-of-date storefronts from the 1940s, some of earlier vintage, matched the deteriorating infrastructure that showed its age whenever heavy rains fell or a water line broke, clogging the sewers and flooding the streets.
“There’d be a storm, the sewers would back up and the water lines would break and it was a real mess,” said Barclay Jameson, former managing editor of The Daily Sentinel.
Traffic also was frequently a problem. Locating a parking spot on Main Street was nearly impossible because store employees took many of the available spaces. Summer was different because, when the sun beat down on the treeless thoroughfare, few ventured out to shop in the heat, according to Vera Mulder and Ken Johnson, authors of “Operation Foresight: Building Community on Main Street.”
Meanwhile, the uranium boom that started in the 1950s swelled Mesa County’s population to 19,000, attracting the attention of commercial developers who were looking for new places to build.
Starting in 1956, developers began presenting the city with proposals to build shopping malls — one on North Avenue and another near 12th Street and Orchard Avenue, historian Richard Lael wrote in “Saving Downtown Grand Junction.”
Downtown retailers saw the writing on the wall. Unless the city took action, downtown, like the retail centers of so many small, Western towns of the day, would probably fall victim to suburban malls — commercial newcomers that were gaining popularity around the nation.
“It was basically a defensive action,” Jameson said.
Merchants realized downtown was behind the times and that they “really needed to do something to keep it a viable commercial area. More than that, a viable civic area,” he said.
Leland Schmidt, a downtown hardware store owner, led the charge on behalf of those who wanted changes made, Jameson said.
CALL TO ACTION
Starting in 1956, Schmidt lobbied the City Council on behalf of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce seeking action on the downtown parking dilemma. The chamber recommended the city construct its own parking lot using revenue from street meters, but the proposal was largely ignored, Lael wrote.
By 1958, the Sentinel also was pushing for action, calling again and again on the city to start planning or risk “the identical community disintegration which has exploded so many other promising cities into a series of small time, disorganized shopping centers.”
The stalemate broke in 1960 when the city hired Joe Lacy as city manager, its fourth in as many years.
At Lacy’s urging, the Grand Junction Planning Commission asked the council to appoint a committee of community leaders to work on the project. The Citizens Committee for Downtown Development was headed by Schmidt and consisted of Howard McMullin, James Gormley, Robert Van Deusen, Amos Raso, Barbara Hyde and Rudy Sussman.
A survey distributed by the committee asked residents about their preferences for parking, traffic flow and shopping. Traffic studies were reviewed. Alternatives were discussed at dozens of meetings convened between September 1960, when the committee formed, and September 1961, when the committee formally presented its plan.
Property owners in the affected area approved the plan in 1961 by a 13-to-1 vote thanks largely to the intense lobbying efforts of Schmidt, Lacy and Dale Hollingsworth, the longtime executive director and chief executive officer of the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce.
Christened Operation Foresight, the plan called for construction in five phases. First came installation of two new sewer lines along Main Street and Colorado Avenue at a cost of $150,000. A new water line also was installed at a cost of $60,000.
In the second phase, several streets and avenues were reconstructed over a 27-block area, with a four-block section of Main Street between Third and Seventh streets delivering the most dramatic results.
The design for Main Street, created by the city’s regional planning director, Gene Allen, called for a serpentine roadway lined with shade trees and planters, Mulder and Johnson wrote.
“Soon the streets were a jungle of demolished sidewalks where units of heavy equipment browsed like primordial beasts in the rubble,” the Sentinel reported.
Temporary boardwalks and barricades directed shoppers around the construction zone while downtown merchants added sales and promotions to lure them in despite the mess.
By the time it was all finished, crews, headed by longtime city Parks and Recreation Director Red Stocker — the man for whom Stocker Stadium is named — had planted dozens of Austrian pine trees and nearly 6,000 flowers, including 276 geraniums, 262 yellow chrysanthemums, 1,300 petunias, 2,300 crocus, 1,200 tulips and daffodils, 192 enchantment lilies and 175 roses.
Inspired by the face-lift, downtown merchants collectively spent another $500,000 of their own money to renovate their storefronts.
Property owners in the affected area raised their own taxes to pay 72 percent of the costs of the reconstruction while the city paid 28 percent, some of it in-kind contributions in the form of streetlights, traffic signals, asphalt paving and concrete work.
No federal funds were used.
The fast pace of construction, though disruptive to traffic and commerce, allowed contractors to complete the major street reconstruction and infrastructure upgrades within seven months. During the interim, the people of Grand Junction waited and watched with anticipation.
“Everybody had been kind of holding their breath,” Jameson said. “We’d torn up the downtown. I mean, what were we going to end up with?”
The result exceeded all expectations. By Christmas 1962, shoppers showed their appreciation, voting in favor of the upgrades with dollars.
“It was just total chaos down there,” said Dale Beede, a Grand Junction commercial Realtor and builder. “I mean, people were everywhere because that was the shopping area not only for Grand Junction but, my wife is from Moab, and she can remember coming over from Moab and shopping downtown.”
At the same time, Lacy and other community leaders decided to apply for All-America City designation, at the time an award presented to cities demonstrating effective planning for the future by the National Municipal League and Look magazine.
“The chamber was part of the planning effort for Operation Foresight and served as the applicant for the All-America City designation that resulted from that,” Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director and CEO Diane Schwenke said. “It was really important and I’m proud that this organization back then played a role in what has become the heart and soul and centerpiece in terms of the community. It’s because of Operation Foresight that our downtown is our number one tourist attraction.”
“Not many cities are able to conceive such a relatively ambitious program and carry it out with such dispatch,” the Sentinel opined in time for the May 17, 1963, Foresight Festival. “None of them have been able to do anything like it at all without outside help.”
“We will profit greatly in years to come from the implementation of Foresight. We will profit materially. But most of all, we will profit because it has proved to us — to the believers and the doubters alike — that we really can cooperate; that we can work together; that we don’t need outside aid,” the Sentinel wrote.
By 1980, competition from the big box stores at Mesa Mall began to take its toll on the downtown. The collapse of Exxon’s Colony Oil Shale project in 1982 finished off many of the businesses that were hanging on, some of which had persisted since the time of Foresight.
“Obviously it was very hard on the merchants in downtown ... because many of those smaller merchants couldn’t compete with big box retailers,” longtime Grand Junction area developer and builder Denny Granum said. “Stephens Sporting Goods, Schmidt Hardware, Readmore Books, Keith Obrien” all closed their doors.
Downtown anchors Fashion Bar and JC Penney moved to Mesa Mall.
“There’s a growth process that goes on there and every community has it,” Granum said “You’ve got competition between box people and restaurant chains ... against the mom and pop operations that have existed and been part of the heart of America forever, but that’s part of the evolution of retailing.”
It took years for downtown to recover from the low point of 1982, but the pendulum is starting to swing back, building on the improvements created by Operation Foresight, Granum said.
A second round of infrastructure upgrades in 2010 and 2011 improved conditions in downtown once again, giving it the capability to support many new types of businesses, including three new hotels that take advantage of the convention and tourist trade that migrates up Main Street from Two Rivers Convention Center, he said.
While city officials report sales tax receipts from the downtown area continue to lag other areas of the city and are down 5.7 percent through April of this year compared to the 12-month period ending April 2012, local business leaders still see reason to hope.
“Typically, downtown is a better bargain. It really is a positive,” Beede said. “You can get a better deal downtown than you can get out on Patterson Road or U.S. Highway 6&50 — by a wide margin. That helps to keep the businesses going and keeps the downtown viable because they have affordable rents down there.”
“Now they’ve got a good infrastructure in there. It’s starting to feel good again. There’s a fountain, little shops and good restaurants. This is the trend that’s happening in a lot of communities that have the foresight to see it,” Granum said.
“Personally I sense a movement where people are starting to go back to the traditional, old-time retailers,” he said. “I think people like the service that you get. I think a lot of times the big operations don’t give you the same kind of service. The smaller retailers, the ones that are doing well, are the ones that have developed a niche that the big box people really can’t get in.”