Albany Downtown Manager Aaron Blair stands at the corner of Tift Avenue and Jackson Street in the Historic Old Northside district which will be part of a tour of homes.
ALBANY, Ga. -- Aaron Blair smiles at the raised eyebrows that follow his statement. He expected as much.
"I don't have anyone's private bank statements or anything like that," he says, "but based on my best-guess speculation, the figures are as close to accurate as you can get."
The figures are certainly worthy of the surprise they generate: Over the past two years -- the two years that Blair has served as Albany's downtown manager -- private money spent on the city's Central Business District is a full five times greater than public money spent. As in $3 million vs. $600,000.
"It always gets me when people complain about all the (public) money being spent downtown," Blair said. "What they don't know about me is that I am tight with money (allocated through the Albany-Dougherty Inner City Authority, for which Blair also serves as CEO) that is available. I am very frugal.
"The biggest things we've spent money on are (purchasing) the (historic downtown) Albany Theatre and the property for the art park (on Pine Avenue). Together, those cost less than $300,000."
Blair has put together a "State of Downtown" presentation that he will deliver to the public Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Flint RiverQuarium's Imagination Theater. He will, as required, send copies of the presentation to the Albany and Dougherty County commissions and the Dougherty County School Board, the three taxing authorities in the county.
"We hope the public will come out for the presentation; we'd really like to get input from them," Blair said. "I'll make the presentation and then answer any questions. And I don't plan to sugar-coat anything. If it's bad, I'll say it's bad."
The Central District took a hit Wednesday when Dale Saunders, owner of the Riverfront Bar-B-Q restaurant on West Broad Avenue, announced plans to close the establishment at the end of the month.
But Blair said he was aware that Saunders was considering the move. Riverfront Bar-B-Q is one of three or four downtown businesses that he says "are having issues."
"It's a tough time to start a business anywhere," Blair said. "We are working with our businesses to help them any way we can, but there's only so much we can do. We hate that Dale has decided to leave, but he has to do what's best for his business. We only wish him well.
"I don't believe -- and (property owner) Mr. (Bob) Brooks has indicated he's confident -- that that location will stay vacant long, if at all. There's no one business that's going to make or break downtown."
Blair's State of Downtown presentation will include explanations of the Tax Allocation District (TAD) that this year brought in some $200,000 in new tax money, the boundaries of the specific downtown districts, an overview of new businesses and business prospects in the district, and the plans and goals established for downtown over the next three years.
Among the information Blair will provide is an overview of the loss and gain of businesses downtown in his two years on the job. Detractors will be surprised to learn that the Central Business District added 24 new businesses in 2011 and 2012 and has lost five (including Riverfront Bar-B-Q). Three other businesses in the district have expanded during that time.
"I'll show, geographically, the storefronts that are vacant vs. the ones that are occupied," he said. "That's the only way I can look at it. We'll also talk about prospects."
It's those prospects that have Blair and other city officials excited. They include a new, finer dining establishment that will take up two vacant storefronts, an art gallery that will feature works of local artists, streetscape projects along most of the Central Business District (including one on Pine Avenue that is currently under way) and ongoing efforts to bring residents downtown.
"That's going to be key, getting the residential element," City Manager James Taylor said. "I've been to places like Greenville, S.C., and Savannah, and I've seen what (adding residents to the equation) can do. The old adage in economic development is that retail follows rooftops. For our downtown, I think that's especially true.
"My easy answer about the current state of our downtown is that, no, I'm not satisfied with where we are. But I also know that region faces a lot of challenges. We have businesses in trouble there, but guess what: We have businesses in trouble all over the city and all over the region. We're working under the assumption that there is no magic bullet, that things will not turn around overnight."
While many in the community say they doubt there is a market for downtown living, there are a growing number who disagree. Chief among them currently is artist Sean Mulkey, who is living in a loft apartment on West Broad.
"I'll tell you that, for my circumstances, living downtown has been bliss; it's awesome," Mulkey said. "It's working out fine for me; it's something I've always wanted to do. I love getting up in the morning and walking to a restaurant to have breakfast.
"I have had no (security) problems whatsoever, and I guess the only complaint I have is that everything is so quiet at night. That's why I think it's important to bring in some kind of night life. I believe when more of those kinds of things are available, there will be more people looking to make a move downtown."
Blair said that future plans downtown also call for a continued push for development and refurbishment of the Old Northside Neighborhood between the Central Business District and the health care community surrounding Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital.
"In any large city, it is the distressed neighborhoods around the downtown area that are major causes of concern," he said. "We want to revitalize the Old Northside Neighborhood, and we're going to reach out to Phoebe and ask them to be on the team with us. We feel it will benefit them as well as the downtown district.
"We're giving a house and community tour of the neighborhood Saturday, and it's free. We encourage the community to make reservations (229-438-3999) and come see the steps that we've already taken."
The negativism that surrounds efforts to revitalize Albany's downtown makes his job that much harder, Blair admits. He knows a lot of that sentiment stems from the tenure of his predecessor, Don Buie, who left office in disgrace after being arrested for financial mismanagement.
But the equation is evened out somewhat by downtown business owners like Jason and Mendy Warren, who say their Our Daily Bread restaurant is "a growing business" and who praise Blair for his efforts on their behalf.
"There are elements of this job that have been stressful; I'm not going to lie," Blair said. "But we knew the challenges coming in. It can be hard to stay positive, but (Blair's wife) Jessica (who owns a successful upscale consignment store downtown) and I have made a commitment to Albany. Trust me, we would not have left Naples (Fla.) if we hadn't wanted to come here.
"I plan to keep working to make Albany's downtown better. That's the only way I know how to do things. But I've told my (ADICA) board that if they're not happy with the way I'm doing things to tell my boss (Taylor). The only way I don't want to be here is if you don't want me here."