Downtown experiencing growth

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

ALBANY, Ga. -- B.J. Fletcher heard all the negative comments when she announced she was opening a restaurant downtown. It was hard not to: Most of them were directed at her.

But Cafe 230 has become an inner-city success story. The 230 W. Broad Ave. restaurant is usually crowded with some of the hundreds of downtown workers who toil at government, health care and educational facilities in the district.

Flush with Cafe 230's success, Fletcher and some of her close business allies are betting they can work their magic again. She will open D'Town General Store at 104 N. Washington St. (the old Economy Drugs location) next week, the first of three businesses opening along that block of abandoned storefronts.

Po' Boys Produce, which has been doing business at 1540 N. Washington St. (off the Liberty Bypass) for the last 10 years, will expand its operation next door at 106 N. Washington at the Downtown Fresh Market, offering retail produce --including organic -- as well as quick-stop meals like soups, salads and sandwiches; while Verge, a new consignment store/coffee shop, will locate at 108 N. Washington in the old Churchwell's building.

"People told me all along when we were getting ready to open Cafe 230 that there was no chance we'd be able to come in and dig out of the hole downtown was in," Fletcher, who is also general manager of the Ole Times Country Buffet restaurant in west Albany, said. "But I refused to listen to the negative to the point that I finally started telling people not to bring their negativity in here.

"We've become something of a nation of complainers, but that hasn't stopped me from remaining a cheerleader for Albany and downtown. I believe with a little bit of money, good credit and a vision, people can make a go of it downtown."

The general store, which will also include a soda fountain, will offer "stuff like pantyhose and milk, things people need all the time," according to Fletcher.

Po' Boys owner Bruce Young said he's approached almost daily by customers urging him to open a retail outlet. With "B.J. twisting my arm," Young decided to take the plunge.

"I've been in retail since I was 9, selling produce off my daddy's truck on the side of the road," Young said Thursday. "I also spent 30 years in the retail grocery business, so while wholesale pays the bills, retail is my first love.

"We're going to have a retail outlet for our produce, and B.J.'s going to tie in with us in helping us provide quick, fresh soups, salads and sandwiches. She's been working hard to bring businesses downtown, and the new downtown manager, Aaron (Blair), is really hustling. We figured we'd give it a go."

The Downtown Fresh market is scheduled to open in April or May.

Sarah Edmonds, who partners with Fletcher in Cafe 230 and a catering business, will partner with Blair's wife, Jessica, in opening Verge, which will offer clothing, furniture and other goods on consignment.

"We're excited to offer people in the community this opportunity," Edmonds said. "And I love the fact that we're opening in the old Churchwell's building. That place has a lot of history in downtown Albany.

"Our landlords, Ray Lanier and Dr. Terry Peters, have been wonderful to work with, and we're all looking forward to the possibilities that this provides."

Blair, who has been Albany's downtown manager for the past three months, said private investment is crucial to the future success of revitalizing downtown.

"There's a lot of good public investment projects that have been done, but we need to get some more private investment projects downtown," he said Thursday. "I'm going to focus on some of the smaller projects and get them under way so that they'll lead to more projects.

"Although we have three projects going on at once here, the idea is that they'll spawn one or two off of them, and they'll in turn spawn a few, until we have a mix of things downtown."

Blair was hired last year after former downtown manager Don Buie was fired and subsequently indicted on fraud charges. Buie pleaded guilty and served eight months in jail, but Blair said he's working to overcome the tarnished image of the office.

Buie was accused of funneling money to his wife Shannon and to others under the guise of official business. That's why, when asked if he was concerned about perception given that his wife will be co-owner of one of the new stores, Blair defended her right to be involved.

"Listen, I am smart enough to realize that if my wife wants to do business downtown, I'm not going to stop her," he said. "She knows the scrutiny involved with it; I know the scrutiny involved with it. ... She is very well-aware that she is not to ask me for any programs: no rental assistance, no facade grants, nothing."