Old tires lie outside the Leesburg Tire in downtown Leesburg. City councilwoman Judy Powell is pushing for a project to revitalize the area.
LEESBURG -- Judy Powell's not asking for a lot; she doesn't mind if revitalization efforts in downtown Leesburg start small.
She just wants them to start.
Powell, the former YMCA director and current Leesburg City Councilwoman, is spearheading a charge to rid the city's historic downtown district of blight and perhaps redirect some of the focus now going to the county's bustling southern districts.
"Things aren't just going to happen overnight; I understand that," Powell said. "But with a committed effort by all the people involved, we can start making things happen.
"My No. 1 thing right now is let's clean our city up. Then we can target specific projects and work on them piece-by-piece. Once it starts, maybe it will catch on."
Members of the council met with Southwest Georgia Regional Commission officials Wednesday of last week to discuss ways they can kick off revitalization efforts. Mayor Jim Quinn said the key is putting ideas into action.
"We're great at taking ideas and putting them on paper," Quinn said Friday. "But we have a tendency to be the slowest-acting people in the world. Now that we've put a timeline on some of these projects, though, maybe that will be the thing that pushes us forward."
Such administrative matters as finalizing zoning ordinances and a zoning map, finding funds to repair and resurface downtown streets and sidewalks, and completing planned infrastructure improvements will go a long way toward moving revitalization efforts forward.
There are, however, unique problems city officials must cope with.
"A lot of the downtown blight is on property owned by the (Norfolk Southern) railroad, and you can't do anything to it without their permission," Powell said. "I think they're pretty willing to work with the community," though."
Quinn agrees, noting that Norfolk Southern has already given the city permission to tear down an old peanut mill built on its property, and it has OK'd the removal of structures on property directly in front of the city's courthouse.
"(Railroad officials) actually came in and did an EPA cleanup on their own on some of their property," the mayor said. "They've been very willing to work with us. The key issue for us is that they've given us permission to tear down some of the blight located on their property, but we have to do the demolition at our expense. That can be difficult with a tight budget."
City Clerk Casey Moore notes that Leesburg should get help from special tax funds on some projects that could radically change the face of downtown.
"The T-SPLOST (a state-sanctioned special 1 percent regional transportation tax that will be voted on by 14 area counties on July 31) opens the possibility for major improvements on Starksville Avenue, and we plan to use some of the county SPLOST funds for other streetscape improvements," Moore said. "We're looking at more than $1 million if T-SPLOST passes, so that could be significant to our revitalization efforts."
"T-SPLOST could have a huge impact on Leesburg, Lee County and this entire region for generations to come," he said.
Regional Commission Executive Director Dan Bollinger reminded council members that while they could not use city funds to promote passage of the transportation referendum, they could as individuals tell citizens the benefits of the measure.
City Attorney Burt Gregory suggested a town hall-like meeting to explain to citizens just what would be done with the regional tax money.
The chairman of the city's Finance Committee noted that concerns listed among "findings" and a management letter from a recent audit required the council's immediate attention.
"We are going to start working on these issues immediately," Councilman Bob Wilson said. "We've been shown areas that we need to improve on, and we've already begun to address them."
The key to making needed changes in the city, Powell says, is action rather than words.
"We have so much going for us, starting with our school system, and we need to build on that," she said. "Everyone's hearing about some of our more famous native sons like (country music star) Luke Bryan, (Major League baseball star) Buster Posey and now ("American Idol" semifinalist) Phillip Phillips. But we need to let evryone know about what else is good here.
"If we all come together and take pride in our community, we can make a difference. It's going to take all of us working together, though."
After a pause, Powell adds what could become the city's new mantra: "One project at a time."