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About 50 Bartow residents linked into a virtual meeting two weeks ago, participating in the first of a series of public workshops to develop a master plan to shape the city's future growth and development.

Led by planners with GAI Consulting, the group sessions are focused on resident concerns about the city presently and what the future should hold for the Polk County seat.

Senior GAI planner Andrew McCown, along with fellow planners Carmen Rasnick, Wes Shaffer and Patrick Panza, led break-out sessions of small groups to help the planning company shape the plan that will guide the city's growth over the next few decades.

According to Shaffer, the plan is due to be completed in the spring and was earlier delayed by the ongoing pandemic.

Before the evening session, the planners had already met with small focus groups to loosely outline areas of concern and establish a framework from which to shape the study, McCown explained.

Based on the focus groups, the planner explained, the concentration of effort would revolve around six basic ideas: strengthen the downtown business core; connect parks and community centers; revitalize the city's entrances; diversify the types of housing available; reinvest in infrastructure such as parks, streets and drainage; and “put the city's best face” forward.

In one group, Bartow Main Street director Linda Holcomb suggested that walkability throughout the downtown core was an issue.

Bartow Airport Director John Helms, a new city resident, told the planning group that finding an apartment in the city was problematic and the city should open up to the development of vacant upstairs in the downtown core.

McCown had earlier said that the city seemed to be “losing its graduates” because both employment and more affordable housing were virtually unavailable within the city's boundaries.

“The city has a conspicuous lack of inventory,” Helms said. “There is a lack of urban-loft style apartments that could bring that walkability to the downtown business area and that's definitely a shortfall.”

Linking bike trail systems was high on Bartow resident Jen Daniels' list of things for the city to do.

“If you could ride a bike from Lakeland to Bartow, it would open up more opportunities for people to really see Bartow — not just drive here to work and leave,” Daniels said.

Daniels also said downtown bicycle access from Bartow's east side was also an issue, claiming that downtown traffic was restrictive for cyclists.

In closing the two-hour Zoom session, McCown said there would be additional workshops in the future, but offered no dates for those subsequent sessions.

He added that following those additional meetings, his staff would review the vision and design ideas fostered and compile a report summarizing the entire process, adding possible implementation steps which city leaders can use as a road map to guide the city's future.

Shaffer said the planning process should be completed and the master plan provided to the city next spring. The cost for developing the plan was not readily available from either GAI or the city.