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City official: Is downtown worth saving?

ALBANY -- At a meeting of some of the city's most powerful and influential movers and shakers Tuesday, Assistant City Manager and interim ADICA head James Taylor put his objective bluntly:

"I need to know, from you all in this room, is downtown worth saving?"

"Of course it's worth saving!" Lamar Reese said. "We have too much invested in it to let it fail."

With more than 20 of the city's most powerful and influential personalities gathered in one room, Taylor and representatives of the Georgia Department of Community Development discussed hindrances to revitalizing the heart of the Good Life City and possible projects to move that development forward.

A chronic negative public perception of downtown as well as costs associated with renovating historic but vacant properties to bring them up to current building codes, as well as what type of projects would fit for downtown surfaced as some of the key stumbling blocks to development.

Local businessman Sam Shugart said that part of the issue was the "Catch-22" associated with attracting people downtown in the first place.

"Some say you have to have residential space but you can't get someone to live downtown if there isn't commercial or retail business nearby. Then others say you have to put the retail business component in first, but they can't survive without housing," Shugart said. "So it's a real catch-22. I think there needs to be incentives for both to come downtown."

After several people acknowledged that the public perceives a crime problem downtown despite the fact that statistically its one of the least crime-plagued areas in the city, City Commissioner Christopher Pike said it was the responsibility of the public to stop the spread of misinformation.

"It has to start with us; the people in this room," Pike said. "That negative perception spreads but so does the positive information. When we hear people talking about crime downtown, it's on us to correct them with the facts."

One of the recommendations from business owners was for the city to increase its public relations efforts to counter negative information.

The stakeholders also pointed to hurdles that arise in trying to develop historic properties -- which are prevalent in the downtown area -- and the costs associated with bringing them up to code.

In describing efforts to reclaim historic structures in other towns, Albany Dougherty Economic Development Commission member Mark Lane said that it takes the use of historic tax credits to make projects like that work.

"The only way it has worked and succeeded are because of the tax credits available for historic properties," Lane said. "It can be done, but its a painful process if you aren't familiar with the process."

Taylor conceded that one of the biggest challenges will be to mitigate, as much as possible, the risk that those with money and resources have to take to take on downtown projects.

"There are incentives out there from tax and ordinance abatements to funding options and packages through private and public investment," Taylor said.

James Sherman, who owns several vacant buildings downtown and who is challenging the city's $9 million transit hub project, questioned Taylor about the availability of parking for downtown should the project go through and welcomed Taylor to come downtown and assess the parking situation during this weekend's Mardi Gras, Marathon and Snickers Bike Race.

"That project will displace parking and will interfere with availability of parking in major events and when court is in session," Sherman said.

One promising opportunity that may have sprung up forth from the meeting was briefly discussed by Albany State University's Virginia Stewart, who said that the university is working a project to bring WiMax -- the next generation of wireless Internet -- to the campus.

That project could be one that would easily be integrated into a wireless Internet accessibility cloud over downtown, she said.

"Technology; either wireless Internet, surveillance systems; is one area that I think would entice people to move downtown," Stewart said. "There has to be something that draws people downtown to shop and play."