Athol officials hope workshop can lead to updated downtown design guidelines

Town officials hope that a workshop to be held on Tuesday, March 12, can lay the foundation for a new set of design guidelines for Athol’s downtown. 

Town officials hope that a workshop to be held on Tuesday, March 12, can lay the foundation for a new set of design guidelines for Athol’s downtown.  FILE PHOTO

Ragnarok Tattoo at 357 Main St. in Athol is cited as a model for a traditional storefront.

Ragnarok Tattoo at 357 Main St. in Athol is cited as a model for a traditional storefront. FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 03-10-2024 5:00 PM

ATHOL – The Downtown Vitality Committee is sponsoring a workshop on March 12 to lay the groundwork for establishing new design guidelines for downtown businesses.

Emily Keys Innes, president of Innes Associates Ltd. of Newburyport, will present observations made by her and her staff during visits to downtown Athol, along with suggestions for updating design guidelines developed nearly three decades ago on behalf of the now-defunct Athol Downtown Partnership.

The firm’s services were secured through a $25,000 grant from the Community One Stop for Growth program, which is overseen by the state Executive Office of Economic Development.

“After the general presentation, anybody from the public who attends will be able to say what they think makes for an attractive downtown, an attractive pedestrian setting and atmosphere,” said Planning and Development Director Eric Smith. “And that includes signage, storefronts, public amenities, things like that.”

Asked what the town hopes to accomplish by establishing new guidelines, Smith said the town’s existing ones date from September 1997 and are no longer being used. How the new guidelines will be used, he continued, is still to be determined.

“Right now we can try to create a new sign and facade program,” he continued, “but we would have to allocate the money for that. Right now, CDBGs (Community Development Block Grants) are focused on infrastructure, but we can try to find a way, find other sources to do that somehow.”

A sign and facade program would provide some level of funding to help businesses bring their signage into compliance with established guidelines.

Smith said the new guidelines could also be used to establish a design review process for new development and new businesses that wish to locate to the downtown area.

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“Especially for the people in the Downtown Vitality Committee,” said Smith, “they’d like to see our downtown maintained as an attractive looking community asset. As new businesses fill in downtown they’d like to see the whole place using more traditional elements; more traditional signage to more open, transparent window space, inviting storefronts. Design criteria can be given to businesses as they open here and hopefully they’ll follow that.”

Smith cited Ragnarok Tattoo Company at 357 Main St. as “a model of how a traditional storefront could look.” One of downtown Athol’s newer businesses, Ragnarok opened its doors in April of last year.

Smith also said that businesses that decide against following new design guidelines will not be subject to fines or other sanctions.

“Design guidelines are exactly that—guidelines,” he stressed, “at least at this point in time. Unless elements of those guidelines get incorporated into the site plan review process, which they’re not at this point in time, there certainly won’t be any fines because, again, there just guidelines.”

The Workshop for Downtown Design takes place from 6-7:30 p.m. at Athol Public Library.

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com.