Albany’s interim downtown manager passionate about redevelopment

Sharlene Cannon helped turn Thomasville’s downtown into a destination showcase

Albany’s new interim Downtown Manager Sharlene Cannon says downtown redevelopment is an incremental process that takes time and patience. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

Albany’s new interim Downtown Manager Sharlene Cannon says downtown redevelopment is an incremental process that takes time and patience. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

ALBANY — Sharlene Cannon gave retirement a shot. She really did, actually spent a year away from her passion for revitalizing small-town America to focus on the things she’d always wanted to do.

Turns out, though, she’d been doing them all along.

So maybe it’s not such a stretch that Cannon would end up working in Albany, here to help with the city’s stop-start downtown revitalization efforts, working again with a man who knows her work well.

In one of his first acts as Albany’s interim city manager, Tom Berry asked Cannon if she’d serve as interim downtown manager, a position that’s right in her wheelhouse. Since turning her volunteer work into a career as a revitalization specialist, Cannon has had a hand in breathing new life into aging downtown districts in places like Thomasville, Quincy, Fla., Covington and Chattahoochee, Fla.

Perhaps her greatest accomplishment was heading efforts that transformed Thomasville’s ghost town of a downtown into a showcase destination that lures visitors from throughout the region and beyond.

“A good (revitalization) foundation had been laid when I got to Thomasville, so it was pretty easy to just slide into position (as Main Street director) and start to work,” Cannon said. “I knew from past experience that we needed a success. Once you get one successful business in place, others follow. And then the restaurants come, and things start to fall into place.

“As our program in Thomasville evolved, we started having tremendous success with our retail and restaurants. But to be really successful, we needed a lot of people to come see what we had going on. So we started a marketing campaign far and wide, and we put together an aggressive Downtown Development Authority that wasn’t afraid to take chances. That was the key to turning Thomasville around.”

Berry, who officially moves into the Albany city manager’s office today after attending the annual week-long MEAG meeting, said Cannon deserves the lion’s share of the credit for Thomasville’s downtown turnaround.

“She’s really quite a remarkable person,” said Berry, who was city manager of Thomasville during most of Cannon’s 16-year stay there. “She’s the reason Thomasville had such tremendous success with their downtown revitalization. She works tirelessly, and she’s an expert at putting together a coalition that works as hard as she does.

“Mr. (James) Taylor was responsible for bringing Sharlene to Albany, but I was happy to see that she was willing to work with us. What she’s doing is not necessarily a full-time job, but if I know her, she’ll make it one. I’m confident she’ll work with ADICA and others in the community to help us have success with our revitalization efforts.”

Raised in Moultrie, Cannon developed her passion for downtown revitalization while raising her four children in small-town Cairo. She “volunteered for everything, the chamber of commerce, the school system, United Way, Red Cross,” without really comprehending that she was training for her future career.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but all the volunteer work was the best training in the world for me,” she said.

Recognizing her efforts on behalf of the community, the Grady County Chamber of Commerce asked Cannon if she’d consider implementing a downtown revitalization plan similar to one that had started in Thomasville in 1985, one of the first in the state under the national Main Street program. Unsure where to start, Cannon “borrowed a Main Street manual” from Thomasville officials and tried to bring about change through force of will.

“I worked at it for a year, but there were problems,” Cannon said. “I was green, and there was nothing really official about anything I was doing. It was, essentially, just a one-woman job, and I got little support from the City Council.”

Still, word of Cannon’s work reached officials in small-town Quincy, Fla., and officials there asked her if she’d talk with them about revitalizing that community’s downtown.

“The chamber director in Cairo asked me if I’d ever been on a job interview before, and when I told her I hadn’t she told me I should talk with the folks in Quincy for the experience,” Cannon said. “So I hopped in the car on a lark and drove down to meet with a three-person committee there. We talked, and they said, ‘Can you stay here a while? We’d like to bring in our entire board.”

Cannon was offered the job, and she “started a new chapter in my life.” In the process of revitalizing Quincy, she “fell in love with Main Street.”

To bolster her knowledge of the Main Street program, Cannon traveled to Tampa for Main Street 101 classes. Feeling out of her element, she took copious notes, paying close attention to try and keep all the acronyms and insider jargon straight in her head.

Slowly, though, the lessons seeped in and she started work in a town that was reluctant to embrace change. As the program slowly evolved, people started coming by “from all four corners in Gadsden County” to see just what was going on.

“People would show up at my door to ask me about the program,” she said. “Suddenly, I was a big fish in a little sea.”

When Cannon and a band of hard-working volunteers started to “peel the metal off storefronts to reveal amazing buildings beneath,” people really took notice. In a year’s time, 17 such transformations took place, and revitalization in Quincy was under way in earnest.

When 20,000 people showed up for the city’s Cannon-led QuincyFest celebration, her work was validated.

“People had told us ‘You must be crazy. No one’s going to come to Quincy,’” Cannon said. “But when we started putting our home-made banners up around the city square, people started paying attention. When the crowds showed up, everyone was just blown away.”

When Quincy’s Main Street revitalization program won statewide awards, Cannon’s star rose considerably. She was one of 11 invited to attend the Main Street program’s first Institute of Professional Downtown Developers, and a short while later she was recruited to serve on national Main Street Resource teams that loaned their expertise to cities around the country. She stayed with that program until the Main Street director’s position came open in Thomasville.

In the Rose City, Cannon hit the ground running. She brought in experts who worked with existing businesses on smart practices and hired a native daughter who’d done window display design in New York City.

“The merchants fell in love with her, and she decided to open her own business here in Thomasville,” Cannon said. “So not only were we helping local merchants, we’d helped create a cottage industry.”

With Berry, who’d since become Thomasville’s city manager, on board, Cannon helped reactivate a Downtown Development Authority that worked hard to acquire downtown property and recruit tenants. Shortly after the authority began its work, word reached members that Flowers Industry — the nation’s second-largest baked goods maker — was considering moving its business downtown.

“They hadn’t even gotten the twinkle out of their eye over the idea before we were working on finding them a building,” Cannon said. “The Development Authority purchased the old J.C. Penney department store and an old adjacent hotel to accommodate Flowers’ manufacturing and its corporate offices. That alone brought over 200 white-collar jobs to downtown.”

Other businesses, many that had abandoned downtown in the 1950s, followed Flowers into Thomasville, so the Development Authority made another bold move, purchasing a whole city block and converting the old Mitchell House Hotel into 32 condos. All were quickly filled.

“That flipped the switch,” Cannon said. “Most downtown businesses had been staying open only until 5 p.m., but Thomasville suddenly became an 18-hour downtown.”

Cannon “retired” five years ago, but the itch to get back into redevelopment proved too strong. She put her name out as a consultant and was brought on by the Main Street program for projects in North Georgia and North Florida. Then Taylor put the call in for help with Albany’s downtown redevelopment after Downtown Manager Aaron Blair left for a job in California.

“One of the things I thought was needed immediately was a positive-attitude campaign, so I was pleased to see that the EDC had that going,” Cannon said. “That was one huge hurdle out of the way. The next thing that has to be a priority is getting the right businesses in those vacant buildings. In this job, you spend almost as much time talking people out of starting businesses as you do talking them into it. You have to have the businesses that fit.

“I think the big thing we need downtown right now is a success. I’ve been here two weeks, talking with and getting to know merchants and people who can make things happen, and I don’t really know why it’s taken so long for that big success. But if we can find eight to 10 merchants willing to consider a second business or to move their first business downtown, that will get the ball rolling.”

Cannon said Albany has one huge advantage most other cities don’t.

“The No. 1 asset we have going for us is that (Flint) river,” she said. “That’s a great thing, and we have to build on it. That’s one of the things that has convinced me that the potential here is exceptional. It’s one of the things we can use to get people into those vacant buildings on Front Street, on Broad and on Pine.

“You have to be patient in this business. Deterioration didn’t happen overnight, and revitalization won’t either. It’s all incremental. The Main Street program is a process, and you have to get people involved who are passionate about downtown. And the one thing you can’t do is you can’t ever give up.”