On The Road Again
The Heart and Soul Tour makes its 11th visit to revitalized downtowns throughout the state
When the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) launched its nonprofit organization, the Georgia Cities Foundation, back in 1999, the idea was to furnish a means of improving the state’s downtowns by offering financial assistance from a revolving loan program.
In the last 10 years, the foundation has put nearly $14 million into 41 cities from Acworth to Zebulon. During that time, it has conducted an annual bus tour to present downtown redevelopment projects to tour participants, including economic developers, chamber of commerce officials, government leaders, historic preservationists, architects, reporters and others interested in the well-being of Georgia’s downtowns.
The Heart and Soul of Georgia Tour made its 11th journey this year along a path from Atlanta to Middle Georgia and on to the Southeastern and coastal regions of the state.
It is easy to see that the revitalization of Georgia downtowns is directly tied to historic preservation.
“Beginning in the late 1950s and continuing to today, downtowns across the nation got malled-out, as it’s been put,” says Mike Starr, president of the Georgia Cities Foundation and a veteran of the Heart and Soul tours. “Now we’re seeing downtown areas in cities across Georgia enjoying a strong comeback, especially for the younger generations.”
First-time tour participant Kali Boatright drew a similar conclusion. “I saw some downtown lofts built over restaurants and shops that were very cool and trendy,” says Boatright, president and CEO of the Douglas County Chamber of Commerce and chair of the Georgia Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives. “These were things for young professionals who want to be in a downtown environment.”
Here is an account of some of what Boatright and the other bus riders saw and heard on this year’s trip.
The tour arrived in Dublin as the city was celebrating the 200th anniversary of its founding, a history that has left behind buildings from many eras, with most needing cosmetic help to spring back to life. Dublin Mayor Phil Best says the makeovers have been successful thanks in large part to an infusion of public and private funds, and such investments have revitalized the downtown and its economy. “The new construction money that has been spent and the renovation money spent have generated sales taxes. A lot of people overlook that and the fact that these efforts have also created construction jobs,” says Best.
For Joshua Kight, executive director of the Dublin Downtown Development Authority, efforts to return downtown to pre-mall vibrancy are paying off by attracting locals and visitors. “It’s all about getting warm bodies in the central city district,” Kight says. “Our First Friday concerts in the Farmers Market, just one example, for instance, in the downtown have been extremely successful,” he says.
A downtown landmark, the 1920s-era Fred Roberts Hotel, has been remade into a mixed-use building, with condos, offices, retail and restaurant spaces. A $400,000 Community Development Block Grant and private funding helped the $2.3-million project along.
Not many cities have the opportunity to bring part of a university into their downtown, but Statesboro and Georgia Southern University (GSU) have forged more than one partnership for local economic development (see story on page 79). The idea of spreading the GSU campus onto the streets of the town seemed a logical step back in 2010, when the two entities signed a memorandum of understanding for the creation of an entrepreneurial center to be housed in a derelict building trashed by neglect and time.
Bought for $750,000 by the city and rehabbed by the city’s downtown development authority, the building became a useful and popular attraction. “We took an eyesore and turned it into a showcase,” says Allen Muldrew, executive director of the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority (DSDA).
The eyesore was an old warehouse whose only promise lay in its exposed brick walls and timbered ceilings. Today, the entrepreneurial center, called the E-Zone, sits in the renovated building, known as the GSU City Campus. The initial purchase price and attendant rehab cost is projected to be repaid through its users.
“That cost is expected to be recovered by rents from new tenants, including GSU,” Muldrew says. “The first idea for the building was to provide an off-campus site downtown at the GSU City Campus,” Muldrew says. “The university came downtown with several objectives in mind: to establish the E-Zone, to incubate ideas for new businesses – and there would also be a state-of-the-art teleconference room, with an advanced classroom. Finally, the building would hold a GSU business research and economic development facility.”
A soft goods gift shop has taken space in the City Campus, too. Mul-drew believes this one building will generate increased downtown traffic, attracting students and their professors, as well as attendees for special events like a recent small business seminar and a luncheon that packed the house.
In her welcome to the 2012 tour group, Sylvania Mayor Margaret Evans told Heart and Soul guests the local downtown area they were looking at held restoration projects begun 10 years ago and finished $1.4 million later. “We used a combination of a TE (Transpor-tation Enhancement) grant and matching city funds to do all this,” Mayor Evans says, with a wave of her hand toward a downtown Sylvania featuring new store facades, new sidewalks, parking areas, period street lamps, a new fountain and fresh landscaping along the streets and public areas.
“What you see is also the product of a lot of hard work by our volunteers, the often unsung heroes of downtown improvements,” says Hilda Boykin, the Downtown Development manager. The first welcome center in Georgia was opened in Sylvania, and 2012 marked the 50th anniversary of that event. “The ladies at the welcome center still send tourists to our downtown area, and now we really have something to show them,” she says.
One of the most popular restoration projects took an old and declining restaurant on the town square and converted it into the Soda Shop Gallery, which houses photography and art by locals that spans the ages from the community’s founding to the present day.
St. Marys is a coastal village with a charm that has attracted television and motion picture production units. Most recently, the Gilman Waterfront Park was the setting for an inaugural Oprah Winfrey show called Lovetown USA.
Heart and Soul Tour members received a briefing on the town’s show business career and were shown a prime but troubled piece of real estate, a 718-acre tract of land on the banks of the picturesque North River, providing deep water access and a choice site for development. “We did have a project there, but that was before the economy turned,” says St. Marys Mayor Bill DeLoughy. “We’ll have more interest in that as the economy improves.”
The property was once the site of a paper mill, then was sold for development. It fell into bankruptcy and is now back in private hands.
“We went from a mill town to a retirement village, and now we think we’re in a good place to make movies and television shows,” says DeLoughy.
St. Marys Economic Development Director Artie Jones made plans to pursue ideas and interests in conversations begun with members of the tour group in an effort to promote St. Marys’ assets. “What I plan to do is follow up with various individuals that may be of some type of value to the city of St. Marys in trying to get these projects developed,” Jones says.
Any visitor arriving in downtown Hinesville can easily see this is a military town. “After all, the main gate to Fort Stewart is downtown,” says Vicki Davis, executive director of the Hinesville Downtown Development Authority.
“The fabric of our community has been connected to the military presence throughout the years, from the Revolutionary War to the present,” she says. That connection has led the city to a population of 35,000 and made it one of the fastest-growing municipalities in Georgia, according to Davis.
“Two of the things we were happy to showcase for the Heart and Soul Tour was our Liberty County Justice Center and Hinesville City Hall,” Davis says. “They represent an investment of more than $28 million. So, when you consider that [they are] two of the very first sustainable facilities we’ve had in 175 years of existence, and when you consider where the economy has been, you can see why we’re excited.”
Davis says the new buildings have generated more foot traffic downtown, and that has led to new retail and restaurant openings. “We have two other buildings that are undergoing total rehabilitation and three others that have been completed in the last three years,” Davis adds. “All the development and redevelopment have occurred in the historic core of the city.”
The epitome of a downtown environment that charms young professionals into life in the inner city is Georgia’s coastal jewel, Savannah. Heart and Soul Tour participants visited Sustainable Fellwood, site of a $50-million mixed-use development featuring single family and senior housing, as well as retail, medical and technical space.
Mayor Edna Jackson was on hand to let the tour group know that the living is good in Savannah, and so is business. “We like to see the tour come here because it enlightens people from across the state as to what is going on in Savannah,” Jackson says, “particularly when you look at the kind of infill housing we’re trying to put into this community. You know, we’re known as the Hostess City of the South, and we promote ourselves as a city of charm because we are a walking city and we’re what you call an urban forest.”
Those assets, Jackson says, mean business opportunities. “Beyond the charm and friendliness, we want businesses to see Savannah as a place to locate or relocate.”
Local historians bill Jesup as the “The City That Trains Built,” and today the city is still one of only two places in Georgia where a citizen can catch an Amtrak passenger train to the north or south. The city is building, quite literally, on its train legacy. “We’re presently undergoing an $836,000 renovation of our train depot, which will become an Amtrak station and waiting room and a welcome center,” says local official Truett Thompson, the City of Jesup Heart and Soul coordinator.
“There will also be a 60-seat meeting room for public and private functions at the depot.” Jesup once had seven railroad tracks coming through town, but that number has been reduced to two. The city remains popular among train-spotters, and the railroad traffic still attracts tourists who enjoy that entertainment.
Metter Mayor Billy Trapnell took his Heart and Soul visitors to a 1928 lumber mill commissary that today is home to the city’s welcome center and chamber of commerce offices.
“We had 20-something thousand people sign the registry there last year,” says Trapnell, a former president of the Georgia Municipal Association. “We get a lot of buses stopping there.”
The welcome center is out on Interstate 16 away from the downtown area, so the facility is designed to lure or channel visitors into the central district of Metter, where they will find a newly restored 1920s-era school building that serves as an art gallery. Metter has a number of buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.