Heritage Square: The Community's Living Room

Romans, Parisians and Venetians knew it. Londoners, New Yorkers and even Santa Feans, too. And now more and more Flagstaff residents are getting it. We're beginning to understand the importance of a gathering place in the center of town - an axis around which the community spins. Call it a piazza, place, plaza or square. It's all the same. Valuable urban space dedicated to nothing more than getting together, sitting down with friends or by yourself, and relaxing amidst the hustle of city life. A place to take the pulse of a community.

Flagstaff doesn't have quite the Old World grandeur of St. Peter's Square in Rome, St. Mark's Square in Venice or Trafalgar Square in London. Nor does it have the teeming urban vitality of Times Square in New York or the Spanish-and-Puebloan-themes of the plaza in Santa Fe. But it does have its own uniquely Flagstaff equivalent - Heritage Square.

Heritage Square, located along Aspen Street between the AG Edwards Building and Babbitt's Backcountry Outfitters in downtown Flagstaff, is the vision of five people: Dick and Jean Wilson, Jim Babbitt, Steve Vanlandingham and Francis McAllister.

The five Square proponents, now collectively known as the Heritage Square Trust, worked to convince the City of Flagstaff to make the Square a reality. Previously, the space occupied by the artfully-designed red brick square held a dirt parking lot. "We wanted to turn it into something open to everybody - to turn it into a town meeting place rather than commercial buildings," says Trust member Dick Wilson. "Other towns have it and Flagstaff needed a place like this."

The two-year planning and development process involved intense meetings between the interested parties, designers, architects and the Heritage Square Trust. Planners looked at a variety of plans and other squares, including Pioneer Square in Portland, before deciding on the current design of Heritage Square.

"The layout evolved from many different plans," Wilson says. "We're very pleased with it. It's exactly what we hoped it would be.

"We just didn't want to see it lost," he continues. "It was the last open space in downtown." Each element of the design and layout of the Square was carefully planned to reflect the heritage of the area, says Wilson. For example, the 18,500-square-foot space features an outdoor amphitheater named the Empress Amphitheater for the old Empress Theater that used to stand on the site.

The Square also features a winding brick path detailing the history, biology, geology and anthropology of Flagstaff on a series of plaques, and a red brick railroad track design signifying the importance of the railroad to Flagstaff. Even the design of each bench in the Square represents a significant part of Flagstaff - the railroad, Lowell Observatory, the ranching and lumber industries and the Native American heritage.

The base of the flag pole contains actual rocks from the Grand Canyon placed carefully to reflect the geologic strata of the Canyon, with Vishnu schist on the bottom and Kaibab limestone on the top. One water fountain seems to come directly out of a rock formation. It signifies Old Town Spring, around which the settlement of Flagstaff grew. Toward the back of the Square is a picnic area under a beamed roof meant to provide a place of reflection away from the activity of the Square.

The Heritage Square site was recently purchased by the Hopi Tribe, but the City of Flagstaff operates and coordinates events on the Square under a long-term agreement with the landowners. Cynthia Nemeth, events coordinator for the City of Flagstaff and the Parks and Recreation division, is charged with overseeing the use of the Square. According to Nemeth, there are two ways to stage an event on the Square: through the City of Flagstaff's special event permit process or through the Heritage Square Trust. Working through the City requires acquiring a use permit and providing insurance for the event. The alternative is to work through Kevin Qualls, events coordinator for the Heritage Square Trust.

The Trust has already secured use permits for events on the Square, and thus eliminates the need for parties to go through the permitting process and provide for their own insurance. "The Trust includes people under their series - educational, music, classical music," Nemeth says.

Under the auspices of the Trust, the Square hosts a series of events aimed at fostering a sense of community. "The public can expect music, movies, art and fun in an open-air amphitheater free of charge," Qualls says. The Trust created the coordinator position to facilitate and promote events of the Square to ensure it is a vibrant place that lives up to the vision of its founders.

"The coordinator ensures that vision and makes sure Heritage Square becomes the community living room," Nemeth says.

At present, the Trust, along with local groups and businesses, sponsors four series of events featuring movies, music and education. The Downtown Business Alliance sponsors Movies on the Square every weekend through the summer, Flagstaff Live! sponsors Thursdays on the Square with live music by local bands beginning at 5:30 p.m. every Thursday, and the Heritage Square Trust's Music Series features a variety of music events throughout the summer, including performances by local school bands, Flagstaff Friends of Traditional Music, Flagstaff Community Band and classical music performed by local musicians. The Educational Series features events sponsored by the Museum of Northern Arizona and the Coconino Astronomy Club. In addition to the Trust's series, the Parks and Recreation division sponsors Art on the Square.

"In my personal opinion, it (Heritage Square) plays a great role in terms of the downtown and all of the community," Nemeth says. "It plays a great role as a tourist attraction and in building a sense of community."

Nemeth believes the Square has come a long way. "At first, people were saying, 'Heritage what?'" she says. "Now people orient themselves around it."

"It's a great venue for the public to enjoy," Qualls says. "The focus is to achieve a diverse cultural gathering of local talent without charging admission."

Nemeth feels the Square plays a pivotal role not only in providing a venue for entertainment, but also in igniting community spirit in Flagstaff. Many organizations, artists and musicians agree with her, and the schedule fills up rapidly.

"I can go to Heritage Square, and I know there will be something going on," Nemeth says. She'd like to see the use of the Square expand in the future, with drama performances and more lunch time events.

Even though the Square is completed, the Trust and the City still need help in keeping the Square a vibrant and attractive place. One way to help is by buying an engraved brick in your name, a child's name, or the name of a friend or family member. These bricks are placed into the Square, forming the base on which Flagstaff enjoys its outdoor "living room." Proceeds from brick sales go toward continuing construction, landscaping and upkeep of the Square, as well as sponsoring the continuation of entertainment and events on the Square. Future plans include adding shaded areas to the Square and landscape improvements to the area.

As far as events go, the future is bright. "The future looks great as to the events that are planned," Qualls says. "Every year it gets busier and busier and more dates are booked for events." Those events are aimed at showcasing local talent, helping with community events and benefiting northern Arizona organizations, he adds.

And for the present? "Spend some time out on the Square this summer," he says. "There are several musical series planned as well as an educational series and, of course, the movies."

For more information on permits and events, call 928.853.4292. For more information on the Heritage Square Trust events or brick sales, call Matthew Ziegler at 928.853.4292.

By Mike Prokopeak / Mountain Living Magazine

© Heritage Square Trust 2006
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