Is Downtown Lakeland’s Future Turning Into a Turf War?

Consider me part of the confused camp after I read this morning that Lakeland mayoral candidate Howard Wiggs hosted a Downtown Lakeland vision lunch Wednesday at Grasslands.

The water got even muddier as I followed Twitter updates from the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority this morning, at which Wiggs was added to the agenda to talk about his Wednesday meeting.

According to The Ledger’s recap of Wiggs’ private lunch, which was closed to the press after some brief presentations so that everyone could speak “candidly,” Wiggs has heard complaints about how downtown is run. There are some people who don’t feel that they are involved in the discussion on downtown’s future, and they want to be. Wiggs figured someone should lead the charge, so he invited people to lunch.

There’s no mention of the LDDA in the story, which seems to me to be the primary authority on downtown. I can see where there might be a vacuum in leadership, with the loss of Julie Townsend as Downtown Lakeland Partnership director a couple of years ago and the recent retirement of Anne Furr as LDDA director last fall. But the LDDA still has a functioning board (of which Townsend is now a member), and it’s not like the City Commission has nothing to say already about the future of downtown.

If citizens have ideas or concerns, I’m pretty sure they could come to the city commission and speak at a meeting. They could also reach out to LDDA. It’s not like there aren’t any avenues already in place to try to participate in the future of downtown discussion.

What I don’t know is how receptive those groups are to input and/or “outside” voices. If people have tried going that route and been rebuffed, then maybe I can see why there’s a need to give more people a voice. Downtown Lakeland is an asset for the entire city and even the county, not just an asset for downtown business owners.

Maybe those speaking to Wiggs feel like there are individuals or groups getting in the way. If that’s the case, then I wish they’d just say so and we could work on improving communication and accessibility to the process.

But if the people who have talked to Wiggs and who he invited to Wednesday’s lunch haven’t approached existing groups and just wanted to start their own thing (which they’ve called the Downtown Vision Committee), then this is just asking for trouble. Between the City Commission, LDDA, DLP, Lakeland Vision, Dixieland CRA, Lakeland Economic Development Council, etc., etc., etc., we’re nearing the point of there being too many cooks in the kitchen. And this initiative by Wiggs might just be an attempt to take over the lead chef role, asking forgiveness rather than asking permission.

I don’t know Howard Wiggs personally, and don’t have an opinion on his mayoral campaign. He said he wants anyone and everyone to give input to the downtown discussion and plans to hold future meetings. That all sounds nice, and it’s great if it works out that way.

Call me naive, but I don’t think those other groups are going to just sit back and say “OK, you go right ahead and we’ll follow your lead.” As LDDA board member Ford Heacock said today, according to the @DixieCRA Twitter account, many of the people at Wednesday’s lunch had some good ideas for downtown but they “lacked an understanding about who we are, how we got here and what we’ve done so far.” That’s a big knowledge gap.

I don’t know if those committee invitees think we should be Winter Park or Orlando or Columbia, Missouri or Chattanooga, Tennessee (this city was brought up in the LDDA meeting as a recap for a recent LEDC trip there). In my opinion, we should be Lakeland.

Some good people have already guided our downtown to a strong revitalization. It’s not over, and maybe there is a lull in momentum and maybe this is starting a needed discussion among community leaders. But I hope it doesn’t turn into a turf war, and I hope we don’t have any more private lunches with no press and no accountability.

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