Lake Norman & Mooresville

Cornelius planners seek your opinions

What are the most appealing aspects of Cornelius? What are its least-attractive aspects? What services are you willing to pay more taxes to have? Where do you see the town in 20 years?

These are some of the questions being asked through Navigate Cornelius, the town's 16-month strategic planning effort that will help determine how the town evolves.

The campaign kicked off in March, and now the town's planning department is seeking input through focus groups as part of the campaign's "learn" phase.

Focus group participants will be asked 14 questions during a two-hour meeting with town planning staff, who eventually will compile and prioritize recommendations to present to public committees and the town board.

The next focus groups will be 2:30-4:30 and 7-9 p.m. June 9 and 4-6 p.m. June 10 at Cornelius Town Hall.

Upcoming phases will be a "dream" phase, a "plan" phase, an "implement" phase, an "approve" phase and, finally, an "action" phase. Public input will play a key role in each phase, town planners said.

Town planners also are creating a map to pinpoint who has provided input and where participants live. So far about 60 people - from 3-month-long residents to life-long residents - have participated in focus groups.

When the map is complete, Cornelius Town Planner Jason Abernethy said the town will use the information to reach out to those who may not know about the town's effort and encourage them to share their thoughts.

"Once we have that data, we will be using different tools to encourage involvement from the missing gaps in the community," Abernethy said. "These tools could range from individual calls to neighborhood leaders, a direct-mail piece encouraging participation, or walking the neighborhoods to invite attendees personally. Once we know where the gaps, we will develop a strategy to target those communities.'

More focus groups are planned, said Abernethy. "The process will involve citizen input throughout every phase of the process and does not end with the focus groups. Therefore, if an individual did not participate in the focus group, there will be other opportunities to provide input throughout the process."

With a population of 25,000, the town wants its citizens to get engaged. The more diverse the ideas, the better, he said.

"Right now it is about the issues, and the solutions will come later down the road," said Abernethy. "We're taking great measures to ensure community participation. We really want this to be a citizen-driven plan. "

Since the focus groups began in April, Becky Partin, the planning department communications specialist, said it's like watching history repeat itself.

"I've looked at old town board minutes from 20 years ago, and the issues of today are the same as issues raised back then."

Joel Olsen, 40, the managing director for O2 Energies, participated in a focus group recently. He has lived in Cornelius for two years with his wife and three kids.

"We have lots of good resources and services in our community," he said. "What we don't have is a way to use them without getting into our car."

While he said preserving the quality of the lake and ensuring commuter rail access will be key in determining future growth, he'd also like to see the town become more pedestrian-friendly by adding more sidewalks and crosswalks that allow residents access to the lake, parks and schools by bike or on foot.

Rita Eilenberg, 71, has lived in Cornelius for two years with her husband. She also participated in a recent focus group.

Some of the bigger issues in her focus group included the need for better public transportation, a community center and public access to the lake.

"I also would like it if we wouldn't have to go outside our community for events. We should have it all here," said Eilenberg. "We shouldn't be a bedroom community for Charlotte. We should have access to activities and be able to live here comfortably. I know it's a growing community so as much as we'd like to keep things they way they are, we can't be afraid to make changes as needed."

Abernethy said commonalities expressed by focus-group participants included the need for a commuter rail, education and pedestrian needs, as well as overall quality of life.

"We will be taking what we learn during the focus groups to determine the common opinions of citizens regarding the future direction of Cornelius," said Abernethy. "These common elements will be used as the basis to construct the vision and ultimately a strategic implementation plan."