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2014 could be break-out year for Albany's downtown

OUTLOOK 2014: Ongoing, potential projects reason for optimism in Albany’s inner city

Potential investors are looking into development of the Albany Heights property, which is now owned by the city of Albany. Retail space is among the options being discussed for the site. (File photo)

Potential investors are looking into development of the Albany Heights property, which is now owned by the city of Albany. Retail space is among the options being discussed for the site. (File photo)

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Potential downtown development being discussed by city officials includes renovation of the historic Holman Mule Barn on Broad Avenue. (Herald file photo)

ALBANY — There are plenty of detractors, local citizens who seemingly want efforts to revitalize Albany’s downtown district to fail.

But if even one of the many game-changing opportunities being bandied about by developers comes through as city officials hope, a renaissance could happen in the inner city despite the naysayers.

“There are no done deals right now, but if a couple or even one of the projects that are being discussed downtown comes through, it could change the landscape,” Downtown Albany Manager Aaron Blair said. “If the developers looking at the Albany Heights building make a move or Bob Brooks moves forward with some of the proposals that have been discussed for the old Exchange Building, the impact could be substantial.

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Albany Downtown Manager Aaron Blair stands at the corner of Tift Avenue and Jackson Street in the Historic Old Northside district, which is part of ongoing revitalization efforts downtown. (File photo)

“There’s always the ‘right-place, right-time’ element that comes into play, and buy-in by the community is important. But we are on the verge of something big happening.”

Those who know Blair will attest that he’s not big on building expectations prematurely. But a look at some of the goings-on either in the works or being seriously discussed downtown explains his enthusiasm.

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James Taylor

Among them are:

— Construction of a Waffle House restaurant along Oglethorpe Boulevard;

— Completion of an extensive streetscape project along Pine Avenue;

— “Serious discussion” of turning the Albany Heights building into a multi-use facility that would possibly include retail, hotel space and condominiums;

— Plans to locate a restaurant and office space in the old Exchange Building;

— A proposed hotel that would be located downtown;

— Construction of a multimodal transportation hub on Oglethorpe;

— Ongoing construction of three canoe/kayak launches along the Flint River;

— Construction of a new Dollar General store;

— Construction of a new archives building at the Thronateeska Heritage Center;

— Approval to become part of the Department of Community Affairs’ Start Up Main Street program that will open the door to possible grants for downtown improvements;

— Creating a master plan for the 100 block of West Broad Avenue that would include the aforementioned hotel and development of the old Holman Mule Barn;

— Completion of streetscape improvements along Front Street;

— An as-yet unnamed new development at the corner of Radium Springs Road and Oglethorpe, in the location of the condemned China Palace eyesore that was recently demolished;

— A residential development in the area of the East Albany sand dunes;

— Completion of a Liberty gas station/convenience store on Oglethorpe.

City Manager James Taylor even points out a couple of wild cards that could come into play in the development of downtown.

“I could sell the old (city-owned) Heritage House (hotel) property today, but we have to hold off until we’re certain what we’ll do with the multimodal (transportation) site (currently planned at 300 W. Oglethorpe),” Taylor said. “If the City Commission goes forward with the current plan, there could be an exciting development at the Heritage House site (two blocks west of the multimodal site on Oglethorpe).

“There’s also the very real possibility that something could happen with the (city-financed) Job Creation Fund (which could reach as much as $30 million in credit from the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia) sooner than expected. Even if it doesn’t, we’re about a year or so away from some really big things.”

Blair said his and other city officials’ efforts to entice private investment downtown has paid bigger dividends than most realize.

“One of the biggest ‘non-seen’ accomplishments could be the private-sector partnerships that we have been able to develop and foster,” the downtown manager said. “We have seen an increase in interest and support from the private sector (in 2013) that should make 2014 a ‘turning-point’ year for downtown.”

Blair points to other, perhaps less publicized plans for downtown: a biking trail that will, with the canoe/kayak launches and the nature path, offer active recreational opportunities; street lighting in the historic Old Northside neighborhood; a number of private-sector sponsored entertainment events; facade grant renovations on existing storefronts; establishment of an Art Market.

“One of the missing elements downtown is residential, giving potential businesses a built-in customer base,” Blair said. “We have a young married couple living in a renovated loft downtown, and there has been interest shown in the planned loft apartments at the old Theater Albany building (on Jackson Street). Then you look at the residential possibilities at places like Albany Heights and others, that could be a big boost in future development in the district.”

Blair will offer his second “State of Downtown” address probably in early March. The first address last winter was well-received, giving some citizens a first look at the improvements being made in the inner city.

“When you talk about developing downtown, the private sector is the key,” the downtown manager said. “I’m excited that a lot of the discussion of downtown is being led by private individuals and developers. That could make 2014 a pivotal year in the renovation of this district.”