Albany/Dougherty County: Changes in Attitude

With downtown on a meteoric rise, Albany seeks to boost its image

Thomas Chatmon likes to say that a downtown is the heart of a city. If that’s true, then the heart of Albany is beating a little stronger these days.

Take a weekend walk down these once desolate city streets and you’re more likely to see people headed for Harvest Moon, the city’s trendy eatery, grandparents playing with a rambunctious set of kids in Turtle Grove Park on the Riverfront, or a busload of school kids disembarking at the sprawling RiverQuarium.

Those are just a few examples of a downtown that’s undergoing a sometimes slow and painful – but strong – revitalization. As head of Albany Tomorrow, Inc. the public/private partnership that has helped pour $210 million into the area, Chatmon has seen firsthand the changes taking place. Much of downtown’s landscape has been altered through completion of 125 projects ranging from new government buildings to a much needed conference center hotel.

“We have a combination of diverse projects that have been accomplished,” Chatmon proclaims. “We also have momentum and the general public’s conception of downtown has dramatically changed in the last two to three years.”

That transformation in how Albany residents look at their downtown is a result of tangible evidence that things are truly different now. They can see firsthand that their city center is no longer just a ghost town where no one in his right mind would venture after 5 p.m. – or maybe even before.

The joy with which locals greet these changes is also quite a change from the ’80s, when derision greeted the idea that downtown could make a comeback. Local attorney Bob Beauchamp recalls that when he and other local leaders began putting forward these kinds of plans they “weren’t really embraced by the whole community. It was somewhat controversial.”

Beauchamp joined other Albany Tomorrow founders in studying other cities engaged in downtown revitalization efforts. The group conceived a master plan for development and began implementing some of its goals using Federal money that came to town after the floods of the 1990s. Many of those efforts were shot down at the time as being unworkable.

Yet today it’s a different story and Beauchamp finds it hard to resist saying, “I told you so.”

“Now you can go to any Rotary Club meeting and everybody is patting each other on the back because we have a downtown revitalization going,” he says.

One of the biggest additions is a new $17.3 million Hilton Garden Inn, just across Front Street from the sprawling James H. Gray Civic Center . Its 122 deluxe guestrooms and 13,000 square feet of meeting and banquet space answer the city’s long-standing need for a true conference hotel. In years past, the civic center could host meetings of 1,400 or more people, but overnight stays required trekking to the outskirts of town in search of accommodations.

Chatmon’s organization kicked in $5.2 million to help make the hotel a reality, seeing it as the catalyst that could spur even greater downtown development. With more conventions and visitors coming to town, the Hilton is in many ways a symbol that Albany is the place to be.

Albany Tomorrow has also helped to make downtown a place for full time living with the opening of Ashley Riverside, an $11.5 million mixed-use apartment complex in the Harlem Residential District. The 132-unit development got a boost when Chatmon’s agency provided $800,000 in public money to speed the venture along.

The city also is giving people good reason to come and stay awhile. From couples and families strolling along the six-acre Riverfront Park to school kids ogling the fish at Flint RiverQuarium, locals say there is something to do downtown.

“Downtown Albany is literally changing the entire perception of our community, not only for folks in our region and around the state, but for our local people,” agrees Jeff Sinyard, Dougherty County Board of Commissioners chairman.

Dollars For Downtown

Much of this progress has been made possible by voters willing to approve a series of Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) measures. The fifth one, approved last September with a near 70 percent yes vote, is expected to generate $108 million over the next six years.

“About 30 percent of that will be spent on community infrastructure that augments and supplements the attractiveness of our community to visitors, tourists and local residents,” says Tim Martin, president and CEO of the Greater Albany chamber of Commerce.

Among these additions will be $1 million enabling the RiverQuarium to build an elevated boardwalk. This extension will take visitors from the second floor out and above the facility providing a spectacular view of the Flint and the “blue hole” with its 175,000 gallons of water and more than 100 fish, including striped bass, gar, catfish and largemouth bass.

The addition will help make up for the fact that the facility is set far enough back from the river to ensure that it doesn’t fall victim to another 500-year flood such as the one that devastated Albany in the early ’90s.

This $30 million attraction has proven to be the area’s biggest draw, pulling in nearly 150,000 visitors in its first year and meeting expectations. This year officials expect a substantial drop in attendance – down to 120,000 – owing to higher fuel prices and the loss of the newness factor, says CEO Douglas Noble.

Yet, the RiverQuarium has already done its job of surprising visitors about what Albany has to offer when it comes to local attractions.

“People come here with low expectations because Albany is a small town off the beaten track and they have the misconception that downtown is in the same condition it was 15 or 20 years ago,” Noble explains.

You can forgive locals for sometimes thinking their city seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Its location – more than half an hour’s drive from I-75 – means people must make a decision to visit. In addition, two devastating floods during the 1990s were body blows to the local economy. While little evidence remains of those disasters it’s clear that some outsiders still have a negative perception of the city.

That poses a challenge when marketing not only the RiverQuarium, but any local attractions, tourism officials say. How far will people drive to get here and how do you persuade people to get off the interstate? One way is more money for advertising and marketing, says Sara Underdown, vice president of the Albany Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“In January we went to the city and asked them to consider raising our hotel/motel tax from 5 percent to 7 percent and increasing our share from the current 60/40 split to 50/50,” she says.

That move provides extra funds for marketing by increasing the bureau’s budget from $300,000 to more than $550,000. That boost will probably mean more billboards such as the ones that the RiverQuarium has already erected along I-75.

Building Boom

In the meantime, the building goes on as Albany continues to invest in itself. The SPLOST largesse will benefit a host of downtown attractions. The Albany Civil Rights Movement Museum at Old Mt. Zion Church will get a separate facility for its collection of historical artifacts, photos and documents, thanks to nearly $4 million in public funds.

Another $3.5 million will go to construct a state of the art planetarium at the Thronateeska Heritage Museum , while $3 million will bring the Museum of Art downtown from its present home on the city’s outskirts. Other attractions outside of downtown such as the flood-ravaged Radium Springs and Chehaw Wild Animal Park – the city’s accredited zoo – will get makeovers.

As the second largest in the state, Albany ‘s Civic Center is a powerful magnet for meetings and conventions. It will also get some much needed refurbishing through $2.5 million in SPLOST funds.

All of these improvements are intended to create a dynamic downtown that offers visitors a wide range of recreational choices.

“You will have all these venues that are within walking distance so they are beginning to build that mass that you need to continue to draw tourists as well as local people back downtown,” says Linda Moore, vice president of the Albany Dougherty County Economic Development Commission.

Despite all the progress and the new attractions, local officials acknowledge that Albany ‘s downtown is still lacking in some important elements.

“For 20 or 30 years [downtown] has literally gone by the wayside after the [ Albany ] Mall opened here in 1976,” Sinyard says.

The effects of that urban migration to the city outskirts is seen in abandoned or sparsely occupied buildings now standing side by side with the growing population of new facilities. Local leaders hope that more of these forlorn structures will be taken over and rehabilitated for new retail, dining and amenities to the area.

“I would say probably of all the buildings, there’s probably something in about 75 percent of them, but we have plenty of older buildings and older sites where we can bring in another 20 or 30 private investors,” Sinyard says.

A good example is the expansive Belk’s department store. It remains empty nearly two decades after the chain fled to the mall, despite an effort by local attorneys to convert it to office space. Remaining downtown retail is of the specialty variety and few stores draw suburban shoppers away from the mall. While locals talk about attracting a new department store such as Dillard’s, few think such big-name merchants will materialize in town again. Yet, the city sees retail as one of two vital elements for revitalization.

“What has yet to be accomplished that the master plan envisioned is additional retail and renovation in downtown as well as residential,” Chatmon says. “We have done one residential project so far, but we still want to do considerably more residential – particularly lofts and condos.”

To follow other cities in converting historic buildings into trendy urban dwellings, the city will have to make changes in zoning regulations, local developers say. That means relaxing some building and safety requirements that make conversions unfeasible.

“Basically a developer finds himself having to attempt to convert an historical building into a residential unit under an existing code requirement that’s like building a new structure,” says Beauchamp, who owns more than 800,000 square feet of downtown real estate. “It becomes cost prohibitive for a designer, engineer and an architect to facilitate a development under those conditions.”

Cities usually adopt a zoning overlay for historic areas that eliminates some of the more onerous requirements designed to promote safety. A new apartment building on the edge of town that’s 20 minutes from the fire station has a greater need for a one-hour firewall than an historic building with sprinklers in every unit located a short distance from the station. Exposed brick that provides the look loft buyers love can’t be covered up with fire-resistant sheetrock.

“Otherwise you’re basically constructing a new apartment building inside that shell and that’s cost prohibitive and aesthetically not what people want in a downtown loft,” Beauchamp explains.

The city already has undertaken an effort to change zoning requirements standing in the way of such developments. Once those changes take effect, developers such as Beauchamp will be taking a harder look at joining the renovation efforts.

“We’re focused on removing barriers to private investors,” Chatmon says. “We’re locating and providing incentives to private investors that will help buy down the risk so that it becomes economically feasible to do these transactions.”

All of this development is helping to bring together a city that in years past often found itself divided along racial lines. These days blacks and whites are coming together in a common cause – keeping Albany moving forward, says Mayor Willie Adams.

“A lot of people are beginning to appreciate that Albany is a good quality-of-living city and a good place to raise a family,” Adams says. A practicing physician, he is proud that two of his children who followed him into the medical field have returned to Albany to set up practice.

“Now we’re getting the feeling the city is coming together out of concern for the city and to make sure it continues to move forward instead of being stuck in the mud with the old ideas and old feelings.”