On The Road Again

The annual Heart and Soul of Georgia bus tour rolls into 11 towns ready to showcase their revitalized downtowns. This year’s watchword? Walkability.

Winding down west Georgia roads at speeds of up to 85 mph, the Seventh Annual Heart and Soul of Georgia Bus Tour was an exhilarating whirl of country charm, progressive ideas and Southern-style civic pride that rambled from Douglasville to Fayetteville, including Bowdon, Newnan, LaGrange, West Point, Pine Mountain, Barnesville, Macon, Forsyth and McDonough – all in just three days.

The Georgia Cities Foundation (GCF) and the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) host the tour each spring to showcase cities that have done a good job of downtown redevelopment, creating places where people can live, work and play. Some locales, like Newnan and McDonough, are seeing the fruits of years of investment. Others, such as Forsyth and Pine Mountain, are getting their downtown renovations off the ground by using the arts to remind people of their quaint historic districts.

The GCF, a nonprofit subsidiary of the GMA, provides low interest rate loans (capped at $250,000) to help communities with downtown redevelopment.

Many of those participating in this year’s tour, including J. Lee Tribble of the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, delighted in the success of projects such as Newnan’s Redneck Gourmet, which has seen business increase by 320 percent as a result of renovations partially funded by GCF. “We’ve gone from four to 21 employees,” says the eatery’s owner Casey Smith. “It’s about giving back.”

This year, the merits of walkability seemed to be on everyone’s minds, evident not just in the downtowns but in peripheral residential neighborhoods as well.

McDonough announced an exciting plan to expand Alexander Park to include a high-profile botanical garden that will make the town square a pleasant walk from nearby neighborhoods. In Newnan, City Councilman George Alexander made a plea not to ignore residential areas. “Please help protect our downtown neighborhoods,” he said. “Don’t forget, the nearby residential districts are the reason so many people shop and do business downtown.”

The Heart and Soul tour arrived in Douglasville to the sounds of jazz and trains in the bustling Plaza East, site of a Livable Centers Initiative project to reconfigure downtown with more landscaping and a performance area. The group sounded good, and the space, enclosed by commercial buildings, lent itself nicely to the gathering.

Douglasville also is rehabbing the Smith Dabbs building, while the chamber of commerce occupies a newly renovated former post office with edgy, modern interiors and artwork by Elizabeth Henry. Farther off the square, a 25-acre site may become available if the county jail and sheriff’s office move to a larger site near Interstate 20; leaders envision a mixed-use “new signature” for downtown.

Next it was off to Bowdon for biscuits in the giant Copeland Hall, where tour participants received history lessons from locals in period clothing. The centerpiece of the city’s new development, Bowdon Animal Hospital, is located in a former textile mill; the facility will offer residents of surrounding counties a broad array of services.

A more massive or creatively designed animal hospital is hard to imagine, and the rehab know-how involved appears to extend to the crossroads that is Bowdon’s center. Several fine antebellum structures bordering the area give the sense of history coveted by this community, which is still agricultural in spite of residential growth radiating from Atlanta and Carrollton.

Time Traveling

Flying down the back roads to Newnan, the time travel sensation continued as many magnificently preserved historic mansions were revealed. The Coweta County Courthouse and Carnegie Library (ironically announcing the “City of Homes” in electric lights that would likely not be allowed by today’s zoning standards) have been relieved of their official uses, but new purposes for the spaces are being planned and renovations will continue.

Moving the courts to new facilities also helped provide parking relief. Commercial businesses have flourished alongside fixtures such as Golden’s Restaurant and the local newspaper, The Times-Herald. Downtown is 98 percent occupied, offering a mix of trendy shops, specialty boutiques, offices and dining (along with county administration facilities, the public safety complex and Newnan City Hall) and there’s a waiting list for new space. “Main Street Newnan keeps the generations coming by hosting some 40 events throughout the year downtown,” says Newnan Mayor Keith Brady.

In LaGrange, the tour was treated to a performance by the Chamber Singers at the Chattahoochee Valley Art Museum. “America’s Greatest Little City” will be growing soon when Kia opens a plant in nearby West Point, so it’s good to see quality of life investments, such as the Carmike Cinemas Theatre Project, a $6.25 million, 10-theater, 1,700-seat multiplex public-private arts center.

Many cities renovate theaters to anchor downtown redevelopment, but rarely do they build from scratch. Fortunately, the Carmike was designed to look like a classic grand theater. The Downtown LaGrange Development Authority sold $3.34 million in bonds for the project, while Carmike signed a 20-year lease with the option to renew 10 more years.

“Downtown West Point Transformation Begins,” a campaign to promote the newly streetscaped district, is angled around the area’s rich historic and natural resources. With Highways 29 and 85, the CSX railroad and the Chattahoochee River all crossing here, remnants of a once bustling shopping district abound. Now the city aims to take it back, having raised more than $400,000 to renovate its spacious depot as The West Point Depot and Museum.

West Point is also planning an urban river park facility to anchor a 178-acre greenway with trails connecting to the city via a pedestrian bridge, plus a riverwalk, dam and pavilion. The historic West Point School and West Point Lake further augment the city’s quality of life and tourism potential.

One wonders how all the history will hold up, however, with an influx of Korean culture on a scale corresponding to the new $1.2 billion Kia plant that will be opening in 2009. While Mayor Billy Head notes some loft projects and redevelopment potential in the recently closed West Point Stevens Mill, it’s difficult to imagine how this town will look in a few years, and how it will handle 2,000 new Kia employees.

The same question applies to Pine Mountain, best known for Callaway Gardens, a 14,000-acre resort covered in flowers and botanical wonders carefully cultivated since 1952. The gardens have boosted the tourist-oriented economy, and downtown offers a broad selection of shops and restaurants; the locals’ mood reflects the tranquility of the surrounding countryside.

A rail spur to Columbus, built in 1879, has kept Pine Mountain’s economy active, but the gardens and Roosevelt State Park will always be Pine Mountain’s identity – and it’s a good one. (The name of the town was changed from Chipley in 1952 – the same year Callaway Gardens opened – to identify the community as more of a recreation and tourist area.)

The city’s reputation for leisure may come in handy as the rest of West Georgia changes in the wake of Kia and Columbus’ Fort Benning, where base realignment and a new Maneuver Center of Excellence are expected to bring 11,000 more troops and their families to the area.

Tourism diversifies the mix, and a five-story hotel has been proposed at Callaway for 2008. The city is building a new public safety center downtown to help revitalize and steer growth to the area; but more initiatives will be needed to preserve its coveted quality of life in the throes of such radical population change.

Keep Walking

As the tour wound from West Point to Barnesville, passing beautiful homes on its way to the downtown district, the theme of walkability returned. A rehab project at Summer’s Warehouse is anchored by Ritz Park, which serves as a performing arts venue. Nearby Gordon College, with 3,500 students, is expanding and residential, commercial and industrial construction all are booming; in short the community is thriving.

A $1.4 million federal transportation enhancement grant paid for brick sidewalks, Victorian-era lighting, and a pedestrian plaza in downtown Barnesville. Two community events – Barnesville Buggy Days in September and the Barnesville Barbecue and Blues Festival in April – are a regional draw emphasizing the city’s quality of life and historic identity, as epitomized by adaptive reuse projects such as Susannah’s Day Spa Boutique in the old Jackson & Smith Barnesville Buggy Repository.

Reuse on a grand scale was presented in Macon, “the Song and Soul of the South,” where a local high school band greeted the tour in the former Trailways Bus Station. The facility has been beautifully converted into a new, state-of-the-art Convention and Visitors Bureau near the Georgia Sports and Music Halls of Fame. From here, trolleys venture to such projects as the Happ Manufacturing Building, now the 90-unit Broadway Lofts, and the offices of Bright Blue Sky Productions, in a building that once was a nightclub.

Developer Gene Dunwody describes the 14th Street area’s turnaround – accomplished with co-developers Tony Long and NewTown Macon – as a new beginning.

Downtown also got a boost from the renovated Capitol Theater, now a pub featuring live music and HDTV broadcasts, as well as movies. The Armory building across from Macon City Hall has been reborn as the region’s premier prom destination. Clearly Macon leaders are thinking outside the box; by spreading redevelopment projects around town, they will try to reconnect from within.

Dinner at the beautiful Hay House, overlooking a city with built-in pedestrian friendly streets, sidewalks, and a vibrant grid of mixed uses, drove home how history can be a tool for restoring a city’s vitality. Redevelopers continually described incorporating former uses to give new developments a “funky” quality.

In downtown Forsyth, the Rose Theatre and Forsyth City Hall have been catalysts for do-it-yourself redevelopment, as leaders demonstrate a roll-up-your-sleeves ap-proach that’s working wonders for civic pride. The tour was treated to a performance of Patsy Cline (channeled through actress Kelly Gilstrap of the Backlot Players) and a walk to several works in progress near the pretty square, including the Matich Building (being restored for loft and retail) and Forsyth City Hall, which is being rehabbed with help from a $9,900 Heritage Grant from the state. (Estimated costs may exceed $300,000, but leaders are optimistic they can raise the funds with local sources.)

Known as the “Gateway to Middle Georgia,” Forsyth is using the arts to draw people downtown via the Rose Theatre, which has benefited from $350,000 in renovations, funded by personal donations, support from Monroe County Bank and benefit performances on the square by artists such as Clarence Carter.

Journey’s End

As the tour wound into Atlanta’s suburbs, changes were evident. McDonough, about 28 miles from the capital city, gave visitors a rousing welcome at its public complex, a few blocks from the square between two one-way street pairs that have been configured to ease traffic. Jonesboro Road, an artery to Interstate 75, has been widened to four lanes.

In light of such heady suburban change, the Geranium City has held onto its quality of life with impressive panache, attracting such former city-dwellers as Quinn O’Neill, late of Atlanta’s Nava, who has opened Redz Restaurant on the square in the historic 34 Macon Street building. Redz features a piano bar and rooftop patio; other storefronts on and near the square are bustling with retail and restaurant uses.

At the expanded Hazelhurst House, Mayor Billy Copeland, alongside former Mayor Richard Craig, announced an elaborate expansion of Alexander Park to the tune of 143 acres, incorporating an 18-acre state-of-the-art botanical garden estimated to draw some 850,000 visitors a year. The park is a pleasant walk from the square and links several residential areas. Like West Point’s riverwalk project, it would encourage foot traffic from the city center to other nearby neighborhoods.

Fayetteville also has invested considerably in preserving the historic qualities of its downtown, whether for office-type uses such as Travis House or tourist attractions such as the Holliday-Dorsey-Fife Museum, which presents a wonderful trove of Gone With The Wind and Margaret Mitchell memorabilia, tracing the author’s family history in Fayette County with a colorful array of portraits.

History and culture are welcome twins, helping preserve former shopping districts stripped by the shopping mall exodus as well as the nearby neighborhoods that were once their lifeblood. The rebirth of this relationship leads to a significant trend: people getting out of their cars and walking downtown to shop, eat or take in some culture. Traffic may not be going anywhere, but these towns are making it much easier for people to avoid it if they want. This may do more than anything to offset the cultural and demographic changes that are about to transform West Georgia. Most of these cities are well prepared, and the GMA-GCF deserves the celebration this tour provides for steering local leaders toward solutions that work.

Cities are built for people, not businesses, after all, and it was clear that the excitement of rebuilding from within is contagious. History and culture form our character, and pride comes from the characters that are created. As celebrated Fayet-teville author Ferrol Sams bade the tour farewell at the new Villages Amphitheater near Fayette High School, he joked, “This town’s full of characters – take home one with you!”

The tour left Dr. Sams behind, but not the memories of the beautiful cities seen over the course of four days. Cumulatively, they present an adapting Georgia – a new sense of rural community poised to shine through changes coming to the increasingly dynamic region.

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