Albany/Dougherty County: The Next Big Thing
Redeveloping Downtown, Investing In A New Highway
On the main thoroughfare, a soaring metal arch set between two stone pillars marks the entrance into downtown Albany. In the evenings, it glows with blue lights, beckoning passers-by to what locals like to think of as a city on its way up. Some of the more vocal citizens deride it as a symbol of waste, perhaps reflecting the hazards of public art and the fact that revitalization here is far from complete.
Nestled on the banks of the Flint River in southwest Georgia, Albany is like a city that has caught its breath and is now waiting for the next big thing to happen. Make no mistake about it; this town has been busy, as millions in public dollars poured into downtown to construct attractions such as the Flint RiverQuarium, a new conference center and hotel, a Riverwalk along the banks of the Flint and a host of other amenities. All of these, along with the clustering of city, county and state agencies downtown, were put up in the hopes of setting off a boom in private development in this aged and long neglected sector.
But private dollars have yet to match the public outlays that followed the 1994 flood. That year Hurricane Alberto dumped at least 17 inches of rain, flooding the Flint and Ocmulgee River Basins and destroying much of the city center.
Albany saw the tragedy as an opportunity to rebuild a downtown that had gone into decline as people and business moved to the suburbs. Looking around these streets, you see a restaurant or two here and some retail there, but just as many storefronts seem to be adorned with for rent signs as indications of economic life.
The next big move, city leaders agree, is for investors to step up and begin turning these buildings into loft apartments, stores and other businesses. While there has been talk, the flood of development has yet to take hold.
“Not to the degree that we expected,” says Albany Mayor Willie Adams. “Certainly that is going to take some work. You never know what people’s real motives are, but we certainly are going to have to find out who is going to move ahead and how we are going to handle that aspect of it. The disappointment is on the private side.”
Officials concede that sparking development is a lengthy process. Even with a bevy of local amenities in place, the number of downtown residents hasn’t reached the critical mass needed to support an influx of new businesses or, in a seeming catch-22, prompt builders to construct the kind of apartments and loft developments that are taking root in other cities.
“We are putting together a package of incentives to get businesses to come downtown,” says Dougherty County Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard. “We’ve got to get more people downtown, which requires people living downtown, whether it be lofts or condos or townhouses – that isn’t important.”
New housing downtown has been scarce, although several developers have looked at converting unused buildings to lofts. Most recently, the old Gordon Hotel, which currently houses the Water, Gas & Light Commission, is being considered for an active adult community. With much of its infrastructure still in place, the multi-story building could be easily converted to condos, officials say.
Ebb And Flow
Over the past several years, the city – mostly in the guise of its downtown development agency, Albany Tomorrow, Inc. – has poured more than $150 million into creating a host of new amenities and attractions to make the city center a livable environment.
The massive Flint RiverQuarium is a big draw, and people like to stroll along the concrete Riverwalk. The Civic Center hosts enough meetings and events to keep the nearby Hilton Gardens Inn full most days of the week. More attractions are on the way, including construction of a new planetarium at the Thronateeksa Heritage Center, renovation of an historic Bridge House as a visitor’s center, a new Civil Rights Movement Museum and an expansion of the walking trail along the Flint River all the way to Chehaw Park. In addition, the city will honor one of its most famous native sons with a memorial plaza dedicated to music legend Ray Charles.
“Right now we are in-between the government having developed the infrastructure and the private people being willing to come down and invest their money,” says attorney Phil Cannon, president of the Downtown Albany Merchants Association. “There is no doubt in my mind that it is going to happen. It is a matter of how it is going to happen and who is going to be the one that sticks their neck out there to take that risk.”
In the last few years, several out of town investors have come into the city promoting various projects that haven’t come to fruition. Their failure to get those ideas off the ground has discouraged others.
“Anybody that was local that had considered coming into downtown as a private developer or to open up a private business looked at these individuals or these property owners and thought, ‘If they can’t make it work how can I,’” Cannon says. “There is a perception that now is not the right time.”
Some businesses have remained downtown; others have come and gone. Peter Studl, who owns some 20 properties in the area, notes that several enterprises, including at least three restaurants, have opened and then closed – either permanently or to flee to new locations in the suburbs.
“It’s the process of ebb and flow, and it’s been ebb lately,” he says.
Downtown also is fighting its image as a scary and perhaps dangerous place where you don’t want to venture after dark. While it’s true that the area had its crime problems back in the ’70s and ’80s, those days are long gone. In fact, local leaders like to point to police department statistics that show downtown now has the county’s lowest crime rate.
People are beginning to return to the city, thanks to events such as the local Mardi Gras celebration. An estimated 20,000 visitors crowded downtown last March for festivities that included a bike race and marathon.
“Our whole deal when we started [the street festival] was we’ve got to change the community’s perception of what downtown is; and the only way you can do that is to do something to get the people down here,” Cannon says.
Long term success will only come when the city can offer attractions that entice people from outlying areas – or as far away as Atlanta – to make their way to the city, Studl notes.
Local leaders like to call Albany the capital of Southwest Georgia and that’s largely true, particularly when it comes to retail. Shoppers drive from surrounding counties and as far away as Cordele and Thomasville to spend their dollars at the Albany Mall. In fact, even though per capita income is just $21,061, Dougherty has one of the state’s highest retail bases – largely thanks to spending by visitors, local officials say.
The county also has developed a diverse employment base including companies such as Procter & Gamble Co., Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. and Miller Brewing Co. All have major operations here. Thousands more work in the healthcare and retail sectors and at the Marine Corps logistics base.
Yet earlier this year, Albany and Dougherty County were shaken by the announcement that one of the big local employers, Merck Pharmaceuticals, would be closing. As a result, the county stands to lose more than 500 well-paying jobs.
Merck’s efforts to sell the plant to another pharmaceutical company failed, leading to the announcement that it would begin a staggered shutdown last January. The last workers were scheduled to exit the sprawling facility east of the city this month.
Since then, local leaders have been aggressively searching for another company to take over the facility and mitigate the job loss. With few options among drug companies, they reached out to other types of businesses that might be able to retrofit the plant for their own uses, including an ethanol operation – one of Southwest Georgia’s newest growth industries.
“We have been marketing the plant, literally all over the world – [in the] the U.S. and eight countries,” declares Sinyard on a drive to Atlanta to discuss strategies for developing alternative uses for the plant with state officials.
A former economic developer, he concedes that finding another drug maker is probably unlikely with many companies moving operations offshore in search of lower production costs. After a year of searching for such a buyer for its facility, Merck conceded defeat. Yet, Sinyard believes city and county leaders can find a creative use for the facility that will soon have it back up and running.
While local pharmaceutical production may be in decline, the healthcare community has been a mainstay of the economy and is currently Dougherty County’s largest single employer. Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital plans to build a new $10.9 million medical office building to house its data center. The new facility will expand the hospital’s IT resources as it relies increasingly on electronic medical records.
Blazing New Trails
Albany boosters are constantly seeking new ways to spur economic development, and many believe the best way to bring it here is with new roads – specifically a new interstate highway. Locals have long noted that Albany is one of the largest cities in the country without an interstate link.
The Georgia DOT awarded a contract for a one-year study of the route’s feasibility. If approved it could stretch more 200 miles and cost billions of dollars; but it also would help relieve congestion on I-75, especially during evacuations from Florida. Possibilities include extending the new road south along existing Georgia 520 from I-185 in Columbus to Albany, and then along U.S. 19 from Albany to I-10 east of Tallahassee, Fla. An alternative envisions extending a spur from I-75 in Cordele southwest to Albany and on to Florida.
“I can’t think of a single project that has captured the attention of folks more than this one has,” says Greater Albany Chamber of Com-merce President Tim Martin. “You go to church or the grocery store, you get out and around town, and folks are always asking ‘Hey, how’s that’s project, what can I do to help?’ or ‘What can I do to fight it?’”
A new interstate highway might bring increased numbers of people through the city on the way to Florida and make it easier to entice new industries as it has elsewhere.
While Martin is optimistic about its chances, with road building dollars in short supply these days, it may be too late for the city to get its own interstate. Back in the ’60s, city fathers said no to routing I-75 through town. Instead, the federal government built the highway through Tifton, cutting Albany out of the travel industry that developed along the corridor.
It’s also not clear how much of an impact the road might have on development. The county already has a number of four lane roads, and Southwest Georgia Regional Airport is a major cargo handler for shippers UPS and DHL. Passenger traffic has increased steadily in the past year, reaching an all time high.
For all its efforts, this corner of the state has long been one of Georgia’s poorest regions, with Albany’s poverty rate more than 21 percent. A big reason for that disparity lies in the lack of educated workers in the area.
“Unfortunately, in the Second Congressional District we are not as blessed with the number of people who have college degrees and advanced degrees as maybe in the Atlanta area,” Adams says. “So we have to kind of take a look at what fits our job market, so to speak.”
Service jobs are one of those areas. Warehousing and distribution are another promising area, but training is a longer-term goal.
“Education is an economic opportunity for us and not only for our folks locally, but is an opportunity for us to train folks for the whole Southeastern U.S.,” Sinyard says.
One focus of that education is training workers to handle the complex logistical operations for companies moving goods in and out of the region. Albany Technical College is turning out a class of logistics specialists skilled in moving supplies and materials around the country and tracking them using advanced technology such as GPS. These are workers needed by both private business such as Wal-Mart, UPS and others, as well as the local Marine Logistics Supply Base that repairs military vehicles for use by forces around the world.
“We’ve got 80 folks in that class,” Sinyard says. “We are trying to expand that to 450 because the need for logisticians now, it is really a new competency for Georgia. It is a new educational opportunity for Georgia.”
To handle those numbers, the college hopes to add a new building on the campus. Once in place, this and other programs will provide students with increased opportunities locally.
Creating skilled and well-educated workers takes time, but in Albany and Dougherty County people have developed a certain patience as they work toward building a new city and county.
Dougherty County, 95,700; Albany, 75,394
Dougherty County, 5.7 percent; Georgia, 4.4 percent
Median Household Income
Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, 3,500; Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, 3,081 (civilian); Dougherty Co. Board of Education, 2,880; Procter & Gamble, 1394; Cooper Tire and Rubber, Inc., 1,290; City of Albany, 850; Dougherty County, 722; Albany State University, 650; Miller Brewing Company, 650
Georgia Dept. of Labor,
U.S. Census Bureau, Albany Economic