You can tear a building down, but you can’t erase a memory.
— Living Colour
Orlando Rambo and his fellow principles in Destiny Transportation Group have been accused of “looking out for their own best interest” in their attempts to halt the city of Albany’s plans to build a $10 million multimodal transportation facility at the corner of Washington Street and Roosevelt Avenue.
As if — if it were actually true — that would be a bad thing for a business to do.
But Destiny’s attempts to keep the city from relocating its transit hub from the company’s 300 W. Oglethorpe Blvd. facility is about more than protecting turf. It’s about the survival of Jimmie’s Hot Dogs ... of Connie’s Corner ... of the Harlem Barber and Beauty Shop ... of a downtown district that is as crucial an element of Albany’s history as the very Flint River that flows through it.
“You want to talk about reviving the Harlem District in Albany, the first thing you’ve got to do is keep that bus station where it is,” Jimmie’s owner Tommy Mathes said Friday afternoon. “And, yes, I’m biased because it affects my business. But there is so much history tied to this district, particularly with Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement.
“Well, this restaurant is a part of that history. And Jimmie’s Hot Dogs and the bus station go hand-in-hand.”
Destiny has contracts with the Southwest Georgia Regional Commission to provide “Department of Human Services-type transportation” for citizens in unincorporated Dougherty County and in Lee, Terrell, Colquitt and Worth counties. It also owns the building whose tenants — the Greyhound bus line and Albany Transit — transport people around the city and, indeed, the entire country.
Moving the transit center to a generalized hub at Washington and Roosevelt would, in essence, destroy Destiny. But it would also kill plans — much less expensive plans — to create the same kind of hub that could enhance revitalization efforts in the Harlem District.
Rambo, Destiny’s vice president/CFO, understands the issue perhaps as well as anyone. Even so, he’s not screaming foul as city officials near a vote on the multimodal project that could very well determine his company’s future.
“There’s been a lot of effort put into that other site, a lot of time, money and political capital spent,” Rambo said. “The original idea was to find a place that could be tied into a rapid transit system, which we all know is not going to happen. Some planners in Atlanta picked that site because it was what they thought might work in Atlanta. But it’s not what will work best for Albany.
“Their initial concern about our site was that we didn’t have enough land, but we purchased the old Red Fox nightclub property, and we acquired an option on the old Heritage (Bank) property. We have a design that will utilize that property. The city’s plan (for the new center) would actually devalue some of its prime real estate and it would kill any efforts to revitalize the Harlem District.”
City officials are concerned that if they decide not to utilize the proposed Washington/Roosevelt site, they will “lose” more than $3.5 million in stimulus money that is tied to the site. City Commissioner Christopher Pike, who has openly supported keeping the transit center at the Oglethorpe location, noted Friday that even the appearance of not using that much money when it is available in such a tight economy might not sit well with some taxpayers.
But there are many local business leaders and officials who believe a transportation hub built around existing facilities on Oglethorpe would cost less than building a new facility at the Washington/Roosevelt intersection, even if the stimulus money is removed from the equation.
As one said, “Look how much money they’ve already wasted looking for arrowheads,” a reference to the city’s attempts to determine if the proposed site contains buried Native American artifacts.
County Commissioner John Hayes, who is an outspoken proponent of revitalizing and enhancing the Harlem District for its economic and historical value, said the city has an opportunity to turn what has become a festering eyesore into a vibrant part of the community.
“There are always going to be winds that blow against change in our community, but we have an opportunity to make positive change,” Hayes said. “To not take advantage of that opportunity — to not embrace our history — would be a tragic thing.”
Or, as Rambo simply but eloquently puts it, why try to re-invent the wheel?
“What the city is proposing with the new site is to try and fit a great big square peg into a round hole,” he said. “There’s no need for that; there’s no need to re-invent the wheel. We have a great facility in place and a great plan to turn it into the kind of transportation center that will be an even greater asset to this city and this district.
“Federal and state attorneys have told us this decision is ultimately a local one. We have the final say on this matter. Why wouldn’t we do what’s best for our community? Why would we make a decision that will kill a historic neighborhood when we don’t have to?”
Those are questions city leaders must answer as they decide this matter. Their answers will significantly impact the future of the city, but they will also impact how we honor its historic past.
Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher