How can a designed civic plaza and public art increase downtown activity in a small, rural city?
These stories are brought to you by a partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the NEA’s Our Town program.
Driggs, a small mountain town in Eastern Idaho, is set amidst the scenic Teton Valley, and is a part of the greater Yellowstone area. The Teton Scenic Byway, a main artery for visitors in the region, runs through Driggs, where it doubles as Main Street. Driggs City Center sits on this axis, steps away from the one traffic signal in the valley.
Constructed originally for a grocery store, the building acts as a community center, housing the Teton Geotourism Center, Senior Center, City Hall and Recreation Center. With the simple change from asphalt to grass, the 20,000 square foot (nearly 1/2-acre) parking lot of the former grocery story situated on Main Street became the town’s main plaza. The plaza has been the location for farmers’ markets, snow sculpture events, a temporary ice rink, live music, and outdoor Shakespeare in the Park performances.
Though the rural Teton Valley has a small population of 10,000, there are over 500,000 people who pass through the town each year on their way to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks or Jackson Hole. The town prizes this natural setting and the numerous outdoor activities that are available for its residents. Douglas Self, the Driggs Planning Administrator, says, “it’s a small town of skiers, fish worshippers, bicycle fanatics and farmers on the quiet side of the Tetons.”
With so many visitors passing through, Driggs wanted to find ways to attract people to stop in town. In addition to serving as a place on the route to these wilderness areas, the town itself had the potential to become a magnet for tourist activity, which could help bring new economic energy to the small town.
As Self explains, “Creative placemaking for us—a small town on a state highway that’s the main street—is really about economic development and about triggering a response in those traveling through to think, ‘hey, there’s something going on here and we should stop to explore it.’” The City also wanted to establish a civic plaza for residents to share throughout the year, which could double as a site for temporary events.
Previously, the City participated in the NEA Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design, bringing community leaders and expert consultants together in a workshop format. The outcomes of that process launched a preliminary vision that reflected the community, as workshop participants represented a diversity of stakeholders including the corporate, non-profit, and public sectors as well as local residents.
Focused on the City Center and public space needs at this phase of their work, the City of Driggs decided to transform the open space in front of the City Center into a more formal public plaza. It also envisioned a public art program that would feature art installations and programs as a way to animate the space in a dynamic way.
The plan could also be integrated into the city’s broader agenda to revitalize its downtown area with public art, a plan known as the “heART of Teton Valley.” Ultimately, project planners knew the idea could help create a more vibrant pedestrian experience for residents and visitors alike. Multiple seating areas and walkways, as part of the plaza design, would support that ambition.
The City of Driggs partnered with the Teton Arts Council to ensure that the town’s plans were integrated with broader regional goals. The Driggs Urban Renewal Agency provided critical financial support in the form of a cash match, and it assisted in formulating an early concept plan for the plaza and public art installations.
To help engage the community in the planning and design process, the Downtown Driggs Community Association became actively involved. With the participation of so many different organizations, the City of Driggs helped to streamline project management by linking different organizations and community stakeholders into a Project Advisory Team. This team selected the design firm and reviewed everything from initial designs to final construction drawings for the plaza project.
The team also selected a regional artist team by issuing a call-to-artists, and it reviewed and approved the public art plans. As the project continues to move forward, the team will stay active and will review progress on the commissioned public artworks for the plaza, both sculptures and benches.
Driggs issued a formal Request for Proposals for the redesign of the public plaza, ultimately procuring the services of Aspen, Colorado-based firm, Design Workshop. The design team held a multi-day public charrette to receive input from community members, and they regularly exhibited the evolving design ideas at different venues around the city. As the design process progressed, the Teton Arts Council assisted in a local, regional and national call-to-artists meant to identify artist partners who could develop projects for the plaza.
Shortlisted candidates were interviewed by the advisory team, which ultimately chose Lindsey Love and Trinity St. John. With deep roots in the Tetons and region, this artist team proposed a pair of sculptures made from recycled farm equipment and tools paired with stacked lumber benches reminiscent of the wood silos once common in the area.
As explained by the artists, “our vision is for the sculpture elements and art-seat walls to use similar materials and techniques of construction to create an abstract distillation of the Teton Valley’s farming, ecological, and social history while also expressing our hope for our own futures as current residents of the Tetons. Our favorite aspect of public art is interactivity.” For both the sculptures and artist-designed seating (that also serve as low walls to define spaces in the plaza), the artists want visitors to “touch them, sip a lemonade beside them, or dance through them”.
(1) Expect less public interest as the project design moves along from concept to schematic to design development and construction drawings;
(2) Be careful with volunteer time � too many meetings can cause burnout;
(3) Include artists on project advisory committees � they can provide very thorough review of proposals, designs, and submittals.
The plaza will serve as a central gathering point for the community, providing a landscaped open space for both informal and organized events. By including opportunities for art exhibition, the project will also increase accessibility and visibility to public art for the local community and visitors. Once the plaza becomes programmed and used, it will be poised to attract the many travelers on the Teton Scenic Byway heading toward the nearby wilderness areas.
Because of the considerable interest in visiting the plaza and participating in events, the organizers report that they are now challenged to program the space more than they had originally anticipated. Organizational capacity and funding sources are being developed to increase use and manage multiple annual events.
“We want to see more events and activities in the plaza and people enjoying the space,” said Self. “The challenge will be to develop those events and promote the space through various media.” Yet, this challenge has had an energizing effect on the organizing staff. As Self commented about the city staff, “there is an excitement and increasing awareness of the possibilities with improving public space and using art to increase downtown pedestrian traffic and economic activity.”
Inspired by the work in Driggs? Connect with neighbors and work on your own community vision with The Road to a Community PlanToolkits page!