Blair eyes downtown image

Photo by Barry Levine

Photo by Barry Levine

ALBANY -- Just three months into the job as the city's new downtown manager, Aaron Blair said it didn't take long to figure out the central city's greatest problem.

"Downtown Albany has a perception problem," Blair said during a meeting of the Dougherty County Rotary Club Thursday at Doublegate Country Club. "One of the perceptions is downtown is dangerous, and that's just what it is -- a perception. Downtown is probably one of the safest areas in town at night because right now there is no one there.

"We have to change that perception. It's not going to happen overnight, but I can't tell you how great the potential is. We will work hard, and at some point people will be curious and want to come downtown to see what is happening."

Blair, a native of Columbus, Ohio, who came to Albany after an 11-year stint in Naples, Fla., most recently as director for the Collier County Community Redevelopment Agency, said he and his family carefully considered the move from Florida to Georgia.

"When we came here to visit, I was intrigued by the size of downtown and what was already in place for it to be successful," Blair recalled.

After coming to Albany, Blair said he broke his new job into three areas: discovering what's been done, where the city is now and the primary issues facing downtown. He said he's now convinced the problems of the past can be remedied, and he has a plan to do it.

"Right now, our major focus is changing people's perception of downtown Albany," Blair said. "We plan on combating that perception with an aggressive marketing and branding campaign.

"Then we have to deal with the property owners. We have some good ones, and we have some that don't want to do anything with the property and just hope folks will take the building as is."

Blair said that three new businesses are moving into storefronts on North Washington Street, including the old Churchwell's building: a consignment shop, a general store and a produce market.

"We will try to build on this success, and this is the kind of growth we hope to continue to see downtown," Blair said. "There is a lot of interest; the major problem is there just aren't that many turnkey-ready spaces available right now."

Blair said he is planning to develop an entertainment district downtown in addition to looking at residential lofts and "skinny row homes."

"There are many individuals who are attracted to that lifestyle and would love to live downtown," he said.