The Bus Stops Here

In College Park last spring, a group of economic developers from business, industry and state agencies joined with executives from private foundations to climb aboard a bus for a trip to the far corners of the state.

Their hosts for the journey were officials from the Georgia Cities Foundation, a subsidiary of the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA). The 2006 Heart and Soul of Georgia Tour was the sixth in a series organized by the GMA’s Foundation.

“These tours are designed to expose the foundation board and potential investors in the foundation to cities that are putting forth great effort to improve life through improvements in the downtowns,” says Paul Radford, GMA’s deputy director. “The tour is an event that showcases cities doing that great work, and it cements the partnership between the foundation and the state in downtown development.”

Cities on the tour used elbow grease to make solid first impressions: touching up facades on downtown buildings, mowing lawns and trimming hedges on town square parks before the tour hit town, then rolling out high school bands to welcome visiting economic developers when the buses arrived.

From College Park in the Atlanta suburbs to a tiny community less than an hour’s walk from Florida, the tour found downtowns – once on the brink of extinction – reborn and revitalized. The tour included Fort Valley, Perry, Fitzgerald, Waycross, Folkston, Woodbine, St. Marys, Kingsland, Darien, Baxley, Jesup, Hinesville and Savannah.

Using an innovative mix of federal, state and local funding, as well as low interest loans, small town downtowns are coming alive all across Georgia. Here’s how three of the towns on the GMA tour are doing it.

A Healthy Mix In Waycross

Almost half a million people visit Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp each year, but only a small number wander into the downtown of Waycross, the largest city on the swamp’s edge.

To get more visitors – and locals – downtown, community leaders are turning to a mixture of historic preservation and public/private investments. The effort is working; people aren’t just coming back to downtown Waycross, they’re staying.

“We are on course to having a 24/7 population in our downtown,” says Waycross Mayor John Fluker. “We had our annual Swamp Fest this past October and the attendance was triple that of the year before. I think we are seeing living proof that downtown improvements lead directly to economic development.”

Enhancements include a $7 million public/private partnership that created downtown’s centerpiece, the once-decaying Phoenix Hotel, reborn as simply the Phoenix, an office building housing the Jones Company, its principal private investor. Since 2000, more than $14 million has gone into downtown improvements that include the restoration of historic buildings and infrastructure upgrades.

Near the Phoenix, the early 1900s-era Kress Building is another example of the value of a public/private marriage. On the private side is Heritage Realty, a local firm. On the public side is a family of agencies and organizations including the Georgia Cities Foundation, the Downtown Waycross Development Authority (DWDA), the city of Waycross and the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. Both sides came together to raise $4 million to rebuild the structure.

Already, 15 new downtown jobholders are at work in the Kress Building and Heritage is preparing to put loft apartments on the top floors of the building and add to the growing downtown population.

“And retailers are coming back downtown to set up shop,” says Mayor Fluker. “We saw a need to make infrastructure improvements downtown and we were able to fund those with revenues from SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax).”

Waycross leaders once watched their downtown head in the other direction; people were bailing out like the place was on fire. “The growth corridor became the eastern side of the community,” says City Manager Pete Pyrzenski. “It was a classic situation; all of the chain store and big box growth was out there. I think it’s possible to have two growth areas, with one of them being the downtown. Now we are starting to get inquiries from the chains on coming into downtown.”

Pyrzenski is among the growing number of Georgia’s municipal leaders who have found new challenges arriving in reconstructed downtowns. “We face the battles of finding funding for the downtown with a budget that derives no property taxes from many of the historic buildings,” he says. “It is a challenge to balance the infrastructure needs of the downtown with those of other growing areas.”

Downtowns, Pyrzenski believes, will soon need MOST, the Municipal Option Sales Tax, to keep growth alive. That issue could come before the Georgia General Assembly this winter. Meanwhile, downtown boosters will have to rely on the kind of creative financing that has marked so many improvement projects.

Back To The Future In Fitzgerald

Visitors walking into the offices of Fitzgerald’s welcome center to grab a local map or a few brochures might find Mayor Gerald Thompson willing to take them where they need to go.

One of Georgia’s longest serving municipal officeholders – he was first elected in 1968, and he has three years left in this, his last term before retirement – Thompson is a fulltime mayor who finds it entirely appropriate that he moved his office from city hall to the welcome center. “I enjoy meeting folks,” he says, “So, if I see a stranger walk in, I go out and say hello. And if it’s somebody I know, well, I go out and say hello to them.”

But people in Fitzgerald say there’s a sentimental reason Thompson uses the welcome center as his office. “It’s that building,” says one longtime resident. “He wants to be in that building.”

The building is the Grand Theater, a place Thompson admits has a front row place in his heart. Standing at the back of the Grand, Thompson can point to where he sat as a child, a teenager and a man. “As a kid, I came here on Saturday mornings and sat through serials, cartoons and westerns and live performances,” he says. “It was a community meeting place for kids.”

Today the Grand Theater is a showplace in and a symbol of Fitzgerald’s new old downtown. Mayor Thompson, it seems, has gone back to the future and taken the townspeople happily along.

Like small-town theaters throughout Georgia, by the end of the 1970s the Grand had screened its last picture show and, it seemed, had gone forever dark. The owners moved the movie house to the edge of the city where strip centers and big box stores were crowding up. The silent Grand became a bricks and mortar metaphor for declining commerce downtown, where “Closed” signs were springing up like weeds. But it wasn’t just the mayor who had deep feelings about the Grand.

“That theater was a center of our being as a community,” Thompson says. “We bought it for just what the ground space was worth.” Thompson and the other Grand lovers then raised the money needed to restore the structure and reconfigure it for a multitude of purposes. “There was no problem raising the $1.5 million we needed for renovation,” he says. “And that was about 25 years ago.”

The purchase and restoration of the Grand began a series of downtown improvements centered on the arts and historic preservation that has begun to accelerate in recent years.

Fitzgerald citizens proudly show off their restored city hall and courthouse and a renovated warehouse that has become a public works center. An “Opry House,” where local performers hold jam sessions, has enlivened downtown, as has a farmers market featuring locally grown produce. The government and civic downtown projects have attracted private investment, such as the corporate offices of Colony Bank Corps and a new Planter’s Bank flagship facility. Retail shops have returned as well.

But the community’s investment in the arts may give Fitzgerald its boldest signature. Plans are under way to restore a local landmark and make it a home, studio and gallery for young artists.

The Aldine Hotel Arts Incubator Project calls for an arts center where 20-plus “creative young people” will live and work, drawing a stipend for living expenses “while donating time to local youth programs using art as a means of reaching at-risk and other youth,” according to a prospectus on the project. The budding artists would receive free living and studio space and be “free from the pressures of earning a living.” It is a bold idea that Thompson fully endorses.

“In Fitzgerald, we believe every child can be good at something; it is the job of the leaders to find what that something is,” he says. “The Aldine arts project, when completed, coupled with the Grand Theater project, will give Fitzgerald a unique capability of bringing the arts to rural Georgia and help develop young artists and performers from throughout the state,” Thompson says. And, he adds, “It will all be downtown.”

On Track In Folkston

Things can get a little schizophrenic in Folkston. First of all, a railroad track cleanly cuts through the middle of downtown, neatly dividing the community in two. As many as 75 trains a day roll through this town of 2,500, halting traffic, rattling windows and blasting shrill warning whistles. Yet the CSX trains provide well-paying railroad jobs to locals, and they haul the forest products made by several Folkston industries.

The concentration of trains through this town has given it a name well known in railroad circles: “Folkston Funnel.”

The trains also have become a tourist attraction that’s proving to be of great value to the local economy. “We get between 20,000 and 25,000 train watchers every year,” says Claudia Burkhart, executive director of Folkston’s Okefenokee Chamber of Commerce. “And we had about 250 people come to our Rail Watch Day in April. This has impacted us because we have train watchers from all over the world who come to Folkston to watch trains, and they put money into hotel stays and restaurant meals and buying souvenirs.”

In fact, train spotters keep the two local hotels fully occupied most of the time. To accommodate them and attract tourists visiting the nearby Okefenokee Swamp, Folkston leaders have begun a downtown revitalization program centered on four schools located just off the town’s core.

The Okefenokee Education and Research Center (OERC), state owned but leased by the city of Folkston, is the foundation for what locals hope will become downtown-centered educational and cultural activities that will, in turn, stimulate a bustling retail trade fed by tourists and new residents.

The former schoolhouse holds a 320-seat auditorium, a museum and plenty of meeting space. In addition to providing a clearinghouse for nature-based tourism, the OERC also offers educational opportunities for students from the first grade through graduate school. It houses a 19-foot replica of a two-ton Florida alligator, the largest ever recorded.

The OERC renovation was funded with $2.5 million in state and OneGeorgia Authority funds. Another $2.5 million to begin renovation of two other school buildings downtown was included in the budget passed by the last session of the General Assembly, but it had not arrived by the end of spring.

The two school buildings are to become student housing, laboratories and classrooms for those studying the flora and fauna of the Okefenokee and the culture of its inhabitants. Some 290,000 visitors pass through the gates to the swamp each year on the Folkston side of the giant wildlife refuge, and community leaders hope to lure more of them into local stores and restaurants.

It must sometimes seem to the folks of Folkston as if they are not really a part of Georgia. The town lies within an hour’s walk of the Florida state line, and Atlanta is so far away, it might as well be in Canada. The southernmost tip of Charlton County is surrounded on the east, west and south by the Sunshine State.

“We can feel isolated sometimes,” says the Okefenokee Chamber’s Burkhart. “And Atlanta is a long, long drive. But the isolation serves to make us more resourceful.”

Still, in its own way, Folkston has location, location and location. The little town is just a 45-minute drive from downtown Jacksonville and its restaurants, cultural activities, airport and professional football. That proximity to what was once America’s official retirement state has started a modest growth spurt that promises to become free flowing.

“I talked to our two realtors here and they both agree things here are going to be hopping,” Burkhart says. “And that will benefit downtown.” Retirees with liquidity have already begun migrating into the southern third of Georgia and more are on the way, some of them to Folkston.

Plans have been announced to build a retirement village in Charlton County just north of downtown Folkston. When the two-phase construction is completed over the next three years, the village will hold 200 residences.

“Growth was slow in coming,” says Folkston’s mayor, William Staeger. “But now it’s coming from several directions. The weather brings the retirees here and the cheap real estate keeps them.”

Categories: Economic Development Features, Features