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Downtown development is slow

February 9, 2006

Albany -- The owner of the new downtown Hilton hotel is upset that vacant buildings still surround his property. But some of the people who own those properties fear they'd lose money if they opened stores now, because there's just not enough foot traffic yet.

In the last few years, downtown has transformed. There's the Flint Riverquarium, the park, and the new Hilton. But there are still a lot of vacant buildings along Front Street.

The owner of the hotel says his unsightly neighbors are hurting business. The Hilton Garden Inn is a $14.5-million hotel surrounded by vacant buildings, in needed of major repairs, create an unsightly panoramic view from the hotel.

Hotel owner Earl Patton says he's disappointed by the lack of development around the Hilton. Patton says he's tried to bring in chain restaurants and retailers, but he doesn't own the properties.

But Developer Peter Studl does. "He has a single project that's complete. But others of us have multiple projects that's part of longer process that has to happen," Studl said.

Studl owns 28 downtown properties. He's already opened Georgia Fries, Hubbles and Popcorn in the Park. But he still owns the old Belk's building and several empty stores along Broad and Front Streets. "We're just reshuffling the deck in terms of priority. It's not like we've stopped."

Studl says he's still making progress and hopes to open this oven works restaurant within four or five months. But he too has been disappointed that more entrepreneurs won't invest in downtown and his projects. "I wish I had a lot more money to put in it. But everyone has a limit that's prudent. I would just love to see more people get involved down here."

Albany Tomorrow recently held a meeting with Studl, Patton and other property owners to find out what's holding up private revitalization. "Them getting the actual funding and financing to do it is another challenge they have. Then attracting the caliber of businesses that can pay these new rents of a renovated property is another challenge," said ATI President Tommy Chatmon.

To overcome these challenges, Patton says the county should offer tax breaks and low interest loans. And, ATI hopes to help property owners get state and federal grants to offset the high price of renovations and start up costs. "Anything that brings money into these projects is a good thing," Studl says.

Studl says he'll see it through, but he says he never anticipated having to operate all the businesses he financed. Another concerns of Earl Patton's is the old mule barn.

The Albany-Dougherty Inner city Authority owns the building, but they can't start renovating it because there are concerns the structure isn't safe, and because it would cost millions to bring it up to code. Patton says in that case, it should be torn down so a profitable businesses can move to the site.

ATI and city and county leaders say they will continue to work with private investors to help them keep the revitalization process moving.

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