ALBANY, GA (WALB) - Synergy. That is the word that might best describe what is happening in downtown Albany right now.
For the older generation, people remember the pre-flood, pre-Albany Mall days, when downtown Albany was the place to shop and eat.
Now, it's the younger generation that's pushing for a vibrant downtown. And, investors are answering their call.
What's happening downtown?
Construction workers are gutting the inside of the old Art Park, and in its place, a highly anticipated, multi-million dollar microbrewery will take shape.
"This is the piece that started it all, that really created the excitement," said Albany's Downtown Manager LaToya Cutts.
It's a prime piece of real estate on Pine Avenue, across from the RiverQuarium, and steps away from the scenic Flint River.
"This is what we consider to be our baby," said Cutts.
The city's "baby" because Albany's unique Downtown Development Revolving Loan Fund financed the deal.
Cutts, who serves on Georgia's Downtown Association Board of Directors, said her peers across the state, "Think we are leaps and bounds ahead of other communities,in the fact we have a downtown investment fund, and that, to me, is our biggest tool for us to leverage private investment."
The birth of Pretoria Fields Microbrewery in downtown Albany is the product of local investors partnering with local government.
Just like the new, upscale lofts a block north of the microbrewery, The Flats at 249, named after its 249 Pine Avenue address.
"Just looking at the downtown scenario, and living here, and wanting to make sure that Albany continues to grow and be successful, the most important things for downtown redevelopment is residential, residential, residential," said The Flats at 249 developer Pace Burt.
Burt knows residential. An Albany native, this is his eighth residential housing development within a downtown corridor. Usually, he is the first to tackle a historic renovation in an underutilized section of town.
His success is impressive. According to Burt, his first downtown revitalization development was in Greenville, South Carolina in 2005.
Since then, an estimated $1 billion has been invested in every kind housing, from apartments to condos and homes.
His Mobile, Alabama project was three years ago. In short time, there's been an estimated $60 million in new in-town housing.
For comparison purposes, we took a look at Burt's Church Street Loft project in downtown Spartanburg, South Carolina, a community with similar demographics to Albany, Georgia.
Since it's opening in 2015, Burt estimates $75 million has been invested in downtown living.
"It doesn't take a lot. You got to make some momentum," said Burt.
"I am really glad to see the new energy down there, because that is what it takes," said Bo Henry, a former downtown Albany proprietor.
Albany entrepreneur Bo Henry has built up a successful food industry brand, Stewbo's, alongside his brother-in-law Stewart Campbell.
As Henry confirmed, "It all began at Harvest Moon in downtown Albany."
But, according to Henry, something was missing during their eight years downtown.
What caused the struggle?
"The whole time that we were down there, the one thing we felt like we were needing was residential people living down there."
Henry continued, "Even the eight years I was down there, my lunch business was great, just like it is here. My night business is where we struggled. Some nights were great, but in business you have to be consistent, that is the name of the game."
Harvest Moon relocated to Northwest Albany, but Henry said he misses the downtown appeal.
"We have always wanted to go back. We loved it down there, we missed it down there, it was fun place to do business in Albany."
But, doing business in downtown Albany has its challenges.
"The biggest problem is developers from outside Albany are not going to come to Albany, the numbers don't work," said Burt.
However, all interviewed for this story agreed that a combination of smart private investment from locals with a cooperative, business-friendly government, the numbers, they feel, could work.
Burt has just gotten preliminary results from an expert study he commissioned on downtown's potential.
"I hired a group out of Opelika, Alabama who works with municipalities (across the country), smaller communities, to help them understand their needs for downtown communities. They have told me we need 400 people living downtown to hit that critical mass of other people starting to come downtown."
The City of Albany has done that same type of research in the past and "the number was a little shy of 400," according to Cutts.
What can the Flats at 249 do?
With 64 units, The Flats at 249 will be home to an estimated 80 people with a mix of retail, fitness, and dining. That leaves a "housing gap" of 320 people.
Other future living options include the soon to be vacant Albany Utilities building, once the 115-room Hotel Gordon, a gem in its day, and the Exchange Building, a five story building on Washington and Broad.
"The residential aspect, if that goes over and works, and more comes in, then it can support the neighborhood bar and grill," said Henry.
A successful downtown relies on evening business.
"We feel we need at least four businesses that will stay open after six o'clock to really make that critical mass, where downtown will start moving in the right direction," said Burt.
But, he did offer a warning, "You have to make sure people know what they are doing. Bring developers in that know what to do and have the money to do it."
"We agree. I think that anything we have done thus far, everyone has had skin in the game," said Cutts.
City leaders point to Albany's Downtown Development Revolving Loan Fund as a unique tool helping spur development.
The Downtown Development Authority manages the funds on behalf of the city of Albany, and recommends projects to the city.
That authority is made of citizen volunteers appointed by the city commission. A potential developer or business person applying for those funds first goes through the authority.
However, it is the city commission that has final approval. Both the microbrewery and the Flats at 249 were financed through the fund.
Cutts confirmed plans for the City to "white-box," or do structural improvements, to empty offices along Front Street, with views of the downtown Riverfront Park.
"Right along Front Street, it creates some great opportunity to create retail development," said Cutts.
There are several other factors at play right now that investors and observers say can keep the downtown momentum going, and improve downtown quality of life.
The long-hoped for trail connecting Albany State University to downtown Albany has been funded with a mix of state and local money.
It will link into the larger "Trails Project", making access to downtown more viable, and allow people to enjoy the beauty of the Flint River.
Supporters believe it can help make Albany into a college town. And, the Albany Museum of Art is in the beginning stages of moving it's northwest location downtown.
A nationally accredited museum, proponents think it will build a true "cultural district", with the Albany Civil Rights Museum, Thronateeska Heritage Museum and Flint RiverQuarium all a short walk away from each other.
"I opened a business there because I believe in Albany, I believe in downtown, and I still do," said Henry.
"And, I feel like we are in as good a place as we have ever been since downtown's decline. Since the move northwest, when the mall came, before my time."
Burt, brimming with ideas for a hometown he loves and is clearly happy to invest in, said small things like keeping the River Front Park in tip-top shape, possibly with the help of a group or organization "adopting" its landscaping, will help.
He also said large things, like leveling the Civic Center which he said "costs taxpayers one million dollars a year" and replacing it with green space, tennis courts, and athletic fields will make more sense for how people want to use downtown today.
Cutts said having local people making these investments answers any questions about downtown's staying power.
"People know they are credible individuals that are committed to downtown, and committed to the city of Albany, and so that is creating even more excitement about downtown and maybe even encouraging local people to make more investments also."
Henry hinted about a possible move downtown, "We would want to do something small to start with, but we are looking into it now."
Another local investor willing to help usher in a new era for downtown Albany.
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