ALBANY, Ga. — Better marketing opportunities, better parking and openness for development were some of the key topics discussed by business owners, government officials and other downtown “stakeholders” Tuesday night.
Hosted by Ward III City Commissioner Christopher Pike, Downtown Merchants Association President Tosh Sevier and City Manager James Taylor, the two-hour meeting was essentially a listening session for those interested in downtown to voice their ideas and concerns for the heart of the city and how local government officials intend to further redevelop the area.
“The most important thing we can do is get your input and concerns,” said Taylor, who asked those in attendance to write down the three most pressing issues facing downtown and leave them with Downtown Manager Aaron Blair and himself.
Taylor outlined the city’s plan for downtown development which, in the near term, includes a sidewalk enhancement and streetscape beautification project on Pine and Broad avenues. The project includes widening sidewalks to allow for outdoor eating or shopping and narrowing roads to slow the speed of traffic downtown for safety.
Bob Brooks, one of the city’s largest real estate developers, told the group about his recent renovation of the Nelson Tift Building on the 200 block of Broad Avenue, and explained his plan for renovations of the Exchange Building — the six-story structure at the corner of Broad and Washington Street.
That renovation includes remodeling the bottom two floors as office space, which Brooks said is already leased, converting the sixth floor into a restaurant and he said he plans to convert floors three, four and five into loft or apartment space if he can get a little help from the city.
For Brooks, who owns a substantial amount of property downtown, the key challenge facing the survival of one of downtown’s attractions — the Hilton Garden Inn — would involve demolishing one of downtown’s oldest structures.
“The single biggest problem downtown right now as I see it is parking for the Hilton. ... We should tear down that (Holman) Mule Barn and put a parking deck so people aren’t parking all over downtown when they have an event,” Brooks said.
That comment drew sharp criticism from Miloy Schwartz, the former owner of Lemonade Marketing downtown, who said that the city had already demolished too many of its historic structures.
“We’ve already demolished too much,” Schwartz said.
“Who do you mean we?” Brooks countered.
“We, the city of Albany, the residents of the city have seen too much demolished already downtown,” Schwartz said.
Brooks conceded that the facade of the structure could possibly be saved, but that ultimately it was a prime location for a small deck for the businesses on Broad Avenue.
Parking also came up from Sevier, who suggested that some valet service or an alternative was needed when Brooks had events at the Tift building because it prevents patrons of some of the other businesses downtown from parking near the stores.
Marketing downtown was another issue that came up in the discussion multiple times.
Local notables B.J. Fletcher, who was associated with Cafe 230 and now serves as the catering and sales manager at the Hilton Garden Inn, Lane Rosen, who owns the State Theatre, and Anthony Clark of Antfarm Marketing, all expressed a need for a cohesive and uniform marketing strategy for downtown businesses.
“We’ve got to get outside of Albany, though,” Rosen said. “We’ve got to advertise in Valdosta and get billboards up along the interstate to draw in outsiders.”
Both Blair and Convention and Visitors Bureau Manager Rashelle Beasley have launched new marketing campaigns meant to draw people from outside the Albany metro area.
Blair’s commercial began airing this month on both local and non-local television stations, touting downtown as a place for the arts, while Beasley said that advertising in various trade and travel magazines had been a fixture of her job at the CVB and that new billboards were going up on Interstate 85 South near Columbus.
Still, downtown officials are wrestling with what they want to be.
Gail Morrill of GABE, a bridal and alteration store on Broad, said that she believes enough bars have moved into the area and that downtown should remain a family-friendly environment.
Taylor said that he didn’t believe an “entertainment district” was the right idea for downtown but said that he believed a more mixed-culture approach is needed.
“In order to succeed, I think we have to have an eclectic culture downtown,” Taylor said.