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Following the path to revitalization

Dougherty County Commissioner John Hayes stands at Shiloh Baptist Church on Whitney Avenue, where the Albany Civil Rights Movement began. Hayes is supporting a revitalization effort in the area.

Dougherty County Commissioner John Hayes stands at Shiloh Baptist Church on Whitney Avenue, where the Albany Civil Rights Movement began. Hayes is supporting a revitalization effort in the area.

ALBANY -- Take a stroll along the 200 and 300 blocks of South Jackson Street here, in what longtime tailor Connie Ford calls the "heart of Harlem," and you retrace the footprints of history.

Literally.

Embedded in the concrete of the sidewalks along Jackson are tan and gray-colored footprints that mark the path of marchers who were a part of the historic Albany Civl Rights Movement. Like most of the businesses that survived the ravages that time and urban renewal have brought to the city's Harlem district, those footsteps have faded, losing much of their luster.

Dougherty County Commissioner John Hayes, whose office at Capitol City Bank & Trust at 301 W. Oglethorpe Blvd., looks out on the heart of Harlem, is spearheading an effort to revitalize the district that was long the epicenter of social activity in Albany's African-American community. Hayes insists the district can become part of the kind of tourist destination that draws millions of visitors to Bay Street in Savannah and Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

"I believe our community is missing out on something large here," Hayes said during one of several conversations about the Harlem District. "This district is steeped in something that's a very important part not just of our city's history, but our nation's history.

"To not mark that, to not preserve that history, is shameful. We as a community have got to move beyond the minutiae that holds us back and expand our vision."

Hayes is one of the more introspective and soft-spoken members of the Dougherty Commission. But there's no mistaking the passion in his voice as he talks of the possibilities of the Harlem District, which encompasses a roughly eight-square-block area just off Oglethorpe, one of Albany's main thoroughfares.

"People come here from all over to get Jimmie's Hot Dogs, and when I talk about Jimmie's I can't help but compare it to the Varsity (in Atlanta)," Hayes said. "I've heard from a number of people that Jimmie's hot dogs are as good or better than the Varsity's; it's just a matter of image.

"And we've got Shiloh Baptist Church, where Dr. (Martin Luther) King spoke during the height of the Civil Rights movement, and Sherrod Park where the movement gained momentum. There's so much history there. There's no reason we can't do what other cities have done and provide a first-person look at that history while creating commerce."

Hayes and other community leaders say they believe that drawing attention to the historic elements of the Harlem District could lead to a revitalization that would transform aging businesses there to their former grandeur.

"The Harlem District was an important part of African-American history in Albany, but it's also an important part of Albany's history," former Agriculture Department director Shirley Sherrod said. "I don't think you can look at any one part of a city without seeing it as a whole. To revitalize the Harlem District would, I think, be a positive for all of us.

"Mississippi, Alabama and other states have embraced the Civil Rights elements of their history, but around here we seem to want to get rid of everything that's old. We've already lost the opportunity to see and revisit 'Jailhouse Alley;' everything's been torn down. All of us -- not just African-Americans -- are in danger of losing our history."

Much of Albany's Civil Rights history is tied to the Greyhound bus terminal at 300 W. Oglethorpe. It was there that historic sit-ins and boycotts helped shape legislation that brought civic change to an area of the Deep South that vehemently rejected such change.

City of Albany officials will decide soon whether to build a new multimodal transit hub at the corner of Washington Street and Roosevelt Avenue, essentially cutting Destiny Transportation Group -- which oversees city and regional transit and leases space to Greyhound -- out of the local transportation loop. Destiny Vice President/CFO Orlando Rambo said any such move would effectively end talk of revitalizing the Harlem District.

"(Relocating the transportation hub) would essentially kill revitalization in this district," Rambo said. "And while we initially fought the plan out of self-preservation, this is bigger than Destiny. Our facility is the anchor of this district, and any hope of rebuilding this neighborhood has to involve us.

"Locations of transit facilities are, we know, inherently political, but sometimes what's good for a community and politics can work together. Taking us out of the transportation equation would cause a demise of this entire district. The city would, in essence, be disinvesting in the district."

Jimmie's owner Tommy Mathes makes no bones that his historic restaurant's success is tied to the Greyhound terminal that brings him a large number of his customers.

"If you want to revitalize the Harlem District, you can't move the bus station from here," Mathes said. "Our sign says it all; we're a landmark, true. But we also go hand-in-hand with the bus station."

Mathes owns all the storefronts along the eastern side of the 200 block of Jackson, and he notes the poorly maintained condition of the city-owned right-of-way in front of the storefronts.

"Just look right down there (at the Micro Business Enterprise Center a block south) at how well-maintained the right-of-way is," the restaurateur said. "And I spend a great deal of my time trying to keep the homeless people from running off customers by asking them for money before they even get out of their vehicles.

"We need a police presence here. We're right across the street from the Law Enforcement Center, but we never see an officer walking through here. We need to do something to get rid of the perception that this area is dangerous."

Ford, who's worked as a tailor at his Connie's Corner for 44 years, and Eugene Bailey, who's cut hair and shined shoes in the Harlem District for a half-century, the last nine at Harlem Barber & Beauty, remember vividly the days of black shoppers crowding the sidewalks in the district.

"You couldn't hardly walk for all the people," Bailey said. "We had everything anybody could want: restaurants, a taxi line, nightclubs, stores. Now there's just a few of us left. There's nowhere to go, nothing to do."

Ford says there's a simple reason the Harlem District was the center of social activity for African-Americans in the region.

"The businesses were thriving because this was the only place black people congregated," he said. "Now all the black-owned businesses are gone. They come in here and build places like the Micro Business Center, but those people are like foreigners to us. You think they do business here?

"You mention Harlem to young black people now, and they say 'Where's that?' There's no sense of history. I ain't gonna get rid of this joint because I still have a great time coming in here every day. I'm 74 now, but I still love meeting and talking to the people. And I still have plenty of work."

Hayes says business owners like Ford, Bailey, Mathes and others in the Harlem District who've held firm despite a declining customer base and the passage of time deserve to be rewarded for their willingness to persevere.

"If we frame this the right way, I can see this district attracting good private investors," he said. "With the right public/private mix, I believe we can create a business atmosphere where the return on investment becomes perpetual. There are so many resources right here in our midst; we just have to get them together like we've done during critical times in our history.

"I can see an Albany whose future is in the hands of its people. But it can't be one person's or a few people's vision. It has to be shared. And it can start in the Harlem District. I believe that, and I'm determined to do everything I can to improve what I can while I can. For it to happen, though, we have to see the greater take interest in the least."

Time will determine if Hayes' vision for the Harlem District is one the community is willing to share. The footprints, at least, are already in place.

Comments

chinaberry25 1 year, 10 months ago

I thought Capitol City Bank owned the Downtowner. If it was so concerned, they would have torn it down without going to court.

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benh1936 1 year, 10 months ago

Capitol City Bank has their fingers in too many sticky situations here as it is. If I banked with SunTrust, I would be concerned about them giving money to that bank.

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chinaberry25 1 year, 10 months ago

But my suggestion is, find someone to write a book like Savannah did with the "Midnight of the Garden of Good and Evil". Paula Deen is even mentioned in it. Look what it did not Savannah. It takes a book to bring the mystic to a town. We could use a good one involving all the things that went on here.

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whattheheck 1 year, 10 months ago

I'm not a supporter of the proposed multi-modal center whose price tag went from reasonable to godzilla without an explanation on "what happened". This thing has drug on so long that it is unlikely anyone knows how we got to point B. But, on its surface, putting it in an area near where its users are and developing that general area makes more sense--if there is predominately private money supporting what will be done.

For taxpayer information only, since others already know, John .Hayes' Capitol City Bank is the major financier of Orlando Rambo's present facility, holding some whopping big notes last time I looked. He has more than a passing interest in where the facility goes. Orlando Rambo, whose Destiny operations own the facility now, stands to take a big reduction in income if the facility moves and the city cuts off the federal money it now pays to him for housing the transit operations. So, as the saying goes, " Houston, we have a great big problem beyond the obvious". I can understand why one would sue to stop it from moving--and others would be sweating that it might.

As a sidebar, It should also be mentioned that Destiny Development Group got a windfall, as I see it, when ADICA gave it the land for the new Homerun Foods and it sold the land the next day to Lanier Oil for $87,000 as I recall. I was told this was done to "expedite the project" but this money could have gone to the city. Perhaps this is the way we do business regularly and all is well in the Good Life but I don't remember being told what was done and why, so perhaps I don't fully understand the transaction.

There needs to be a discussion by the Commissioners, open of course, on the instant case--what we are doing, why it is being done, and a weighing of the options with price tags attached. Let's put it all on the table and see who the winners and losers are so the taxpayer will know why it lost, sooner rather than later. And let's make sure we show the cost of operating the facility in terms of staffing and maintenance. The proponents of government projects always tout the virtues the project and its construction bring but seem to often forget O&M costs are an inherent part of any project.

So if John, Orlando, Shirley, Tommy, et al, want to fund this baby, go for it. Otherwise let's sit back and think about it a little before we make the wrong decision. We already have "tourist destinations" that don't have tourists. Perhaps little things like this are where your tax increases come from.

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dingleberry 1 year, 10 months ago

Where do you find this information?

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whattheheck 1 year, 10 months ago

All in public records--Clerk of Court's Office, Tax Assessor, gsccca.org, and internet. Anyone can find. Have to pay at gsccca.org, run by the Clerk's Cooperative but it is so easy to use--don't have to be a lawyer. Interesting, isn't it?

"The truth is out there somewhere".......X-Files

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Kay523 1 year, 10 months ago

Whatheheck, your post is educational, on top of that I heard that Rambo bought the terminal at foreclosure when Trailways went bankrupt for less than $300,000! This proposal smells of bailout including taxpayer money for the Heritage Bank after they abandoned the downtown. I agree with your ideas of letting Destiny go down and sorting it out thru foreclosure - then more private money will jump in.

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whattheheck 1 year, 10 months ago

Thanks for reading but it is not my "ideas of letting Destiny go down and sorting it out through foreclosure". Not interested in taking anyone out of business. In this case, there was a little more background needed so the public could understand relationships and competing interests. As a proponent of private investment in redevelopment, I feel we don't need another "tourist destination" that doesn't draw tourists as proposed by some in the article. We are holding hands with some now until the doors close. Also, it needs to be emphasized that the public doesn't know much about the multi-modal and why it is what it is. This will be a long range decision with long term consequences so let's at least understand what is in play. Are your best interest being considered? Likely not, as I see this one developing.

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Cartman 1 year, 10 months ago

The common denominator in these half-baked ideas to create a tourist attraction in Albany, is that it takes public funds. If its such a good idea - pay for it yourself. We don't have the money.

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whattheheck 1 year, 10 months ago

A project with the potential of this one could not draw flies much less private funds without those funds being guaranteed, endorsed, or supplemented by government. Keep your good eye on the CDBG,TAD, and other funds which may be requested to support this most noble effort. It is going to be interesting how the city handles the Destiny challenge to its multi modal plans. Will this project give them the "out" to change what is in the mill? After all, we can't possibly afford to run the risk of losing federal funds or "we will have to raise taxes" the politicians will say as we are held hostage again.

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benh1936 1 year, 10 months ago

Tourist are not flocking to the ACRI attractions in that area now. They are not flocking to the Riverquarium downtown either. There is little left of Albany to attract more than flies these days. Private investors default, banks lend money unwisely and no one with any real solid ideas and the cash to make them a reality cares a rat's patooty about this town anymore. It does not make me happy to say this, because this was a fine town when I first came here in the 50's, but the good days for Albany are going, going and gone.

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Cartman 1 year, 10 months ago

"If we frame this the right way, I can see this district attracting good private investors," he said. "With the right public/private mix, I believe we can create a business atmosphere where the return on investment becomes perpetual. There are so many resources right here in our midst; we just have to get them together like we've done during critical times in our history."

Deja vu? I feel like I'm reading Tommy Chatmon's Manual on Snake-Oil Investment Recruitment for Downtown Development Funds. Go ask Peter Studl what he thinks about investing in Albany tourist attractions. Why not show us the great ROI we've enjoyed from the two white-elephants called the RiverQuarium and ACRI.

Again I say, why do these ideas always involve our money. If its such a great idea that will provide a perpetual return on investment, then why wouldn't a wealthy person already have done it? Why doesn't Capitol Bank do it?

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whattheheck 1 year, 10 months ago

Ah, Carts. Why doesn't Capitol City do it? Well, banks don't like to invest in as many things with little potential after eating a few bad 'uns. CC has some of University's bad paper, and same for Lajuas' Restaurant, Heritage House, Broad Ave School, and almost ate some of Grovetown . This leads me to believe it may be easier to get your money. How many shares in this Bourbon Street look alike do you want? Better buy before the city corners the market in its part of the "mix".

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