Downtown Manager Aaron Blair speaks to a group of stakeholders at the Albany Welcome Center.
ALBANY — Aaron Blair is simple and unassuming.
Most are unaware that the energetic, Ohio-born man — who is rather trim by Southern standards — strolling the city’s central streets is carrying the heart of downtown on his shoulders, and to many people’s surprise, carrying it well.
A year into his job as downtown manager and CEO of the Albany-Dougherty Inner City Authority, Blair has heard all of the chatter about how downtown revitalization will never work, how downtown is a haven for crime, corruption and graft, and how the city’s determination to pour time and money downtown is futile.
But hearing and believing are two separate things.
“I’ve heard what people have said. And, looking back, I guess I didn’t really understand how bad the perception of downtown was when I took this job,” Blair said.
And, to be fair, the critics had a lot to wail about.
Blair moved into his fifth-floor office shortly after former downtown manager Don Buie — an outsider from Maryland who ended up banished from Albany after a stint in jail for abusing his authority — was being tossed out.
And, with the exception of a few courageous entrepreneurs, downtown had seen relatively few businesses opening their doors.
The only thing more scarce than tenants on the streets of downtown Albany was the amount of public trust invested by residents of the city in the downtown manager’s office.
But now, more than a year after Blair, his wife Jessica, and his faux hawk wandered into Albany, redevelopment efforts downtown are on the verge of success.
The Downtown Merchant’s Association is active and growing; Blair has started a monthly night-time social event called “Nights@Dtown” that is growing in popularity; Winedown Wednesdays at Chill Bar and Lounge is popular among the professionals, and more than 12 new storefront businesses have opened since January 2011.
The biggest accomplishment, however, is overcoming the perception that plagued downtown when he first started the job, Blair said.
“We’ve got a lot of energy started downtown, and that’s something that is really resonating with people,” Blair said. “We’ve got a lot of people who believe in downtown and who want to be here. The trick is making it all work.”
And there are other things in the works.
The city and ADICA are on the verge of a makeover on the 100 block of Pine Avenue. The entire street, from Riverfront Park to Washington Street, will be resurfaced, with sidewalks repaired and the street narrowed to make it safer for pedestrian and motor-vehicle traffic.
ADICA is moving forward with plans to create an art park on the same block of Pine Avenue in what used to be a NAPA auto parts store. That project will turn the blighted building into a space for artists and public reflection.
And then there are the residential projects.
“Looking forward, retail and residential projects have got to be part of the scope of work downtown,” Blair said. “There are ways to do it, either through lofts or through development of neighborhoods on the outskirts of the traditional downtown area. But it has to be there to make it all work.”
The two most significant projects downtown during Blair’s second year as manager started before he ever took the job.
The first — the demolition of the existing Broad Avenue bridge and construction of a new one — is expected to begin sometime next year and will reopen a corridor connecting east and west Albany that has been closed for more than two years.
Just northeast of the bridge, near the Sandy Bottom District, the state of Georgia and city of Albany will likely begin construction of a new multimodal transit station at some point during 2012.
The station will house the city’s bus operations and will be a hub for cab drivers across the city. Preliminary discussions of the building suggest it will also feature retail shops and other mixed-use spaces as well.