Gene Kirk works on a bicycle at his Break Away Cycles business on Ledo Road Monday morning. Kirk said he is considering a move to Albany’s downtown district. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)
Break Away Cycles owner looks to downtown Albany
Gene Kirk, owner of Break Away Cycles on Ledo Road, talks about the potential for downtown Albany and needs that need to be addressed in the downtown district. Kirk got started in the sports business at a longtime downtown Albany merchant, Owens Sporting Goods, when he was in high school.
ALBANY — Of all the business owners currently considering a move downtown, lured by promises of low rent and an inner-city renaissance, few may be better suited than Gene Kirk and his Break Away Cycles, where owner Kirk sells and repairs bicycles and offers pretty much any bike accessory available.
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The tie-in with the popular downtown Riverfront Trail alongside the Flint River, used frequently by hikers and bikers alike, is a natural lure, but so, too, is the younger, upwardly-mobile, artistic group that frequents the downtown area.
Those facts are not lost on Kirk, an Albany native who has turned his love for biking into a lifetime pursuit.
“There’s just a ton of potential downtown,” Kirk, who confirmed that he is considering a move to one of the vacant storefronts along Front Street, said Monday morning. “We’re one of the few businesses (considering a move) that would be a natural fit, not forced. The trail along the river would promote traffic and create a huge opportunity.”
But Kirk said he is not ready to put the future of downtown on his shoulders.
“There definitely has to be a few key players for any revitalization to work,” the businessman said. “It can’t be just me; we can’t just mom-and-pop the downtown and expect everything to take off. I love small businesses, but we need a chain — a Locos or a Mellow Mushroom — a solid anchor to have a big impact. We need a business that’s almost too big to fail.”
Those involved in Albany’s downtown redevelopment aren’t saying who just yet, but they’re planning a news conference some time this week to update the public on their latest plans. Some have hinted that the media gathering could include the kind of announcement Kirk is hoping for.
“(Downtown development) is not just a pipe dream for the people we’re talking to,” said local Real Estate broker Mary Carter, who is part of the local contingent partnering with Shandon Development Properties of North Carolina to create Shandon Marketplace, which is spearheading local development efforts. “Oh, my gosh, the energy that is being created downtown is just phenomenal. When we’ve scheduled meetings to show property downtown, people have been lining up.
“I’m a very positive person, but one thing (Shandon principle) Patrick (Plettner) has stressed is that even when you’re being positive, you have to be realistic. Even so, I’m about 99.9 percent sure that we’re going to have signed leases soon on all the property from the Art Park (on Pine) to Front street, and from the corner of Front to the alley. And we’re talking about some top-shelf people.”
Eight separate business owners, including Kirk at Break Away, have signed letters-of-interest on Pine Avenue and Front Street storefronts, giving Shandon Marketplace the green light it needed to seek $1.1 million in funding to purchase the property and make necessary repairs. The Albany-Dougherty Inner City Authority has agreed in principle — while awaiting paperwork from Shandon — to kick in another $425,000 to help the developer make the necessary repairs and keep rent as low as possible.
“Everything is moving forward; it’s going good,” Plettner, who was traveling from North Carolina to Albany Monday, said. “In fact, it’s going even better than we’d hoped it would. We’ve exceeded expectations. We’re now in formal discussions with our bank about financing, and we hope to get that done this week.
“We also hope to have a completed master plan for our downtown development ready by this week. Our architect (Mack Wakeford) is working on elevations at this time and should be finished soon. And while we’re talking a lot about the Riverfront Retail portion of our master plan with all these businesses looking to open on Pine and Front, we’re working on the conference and convention center piece of our plan, too. We’re working on all phases of the plan.”
Some business owners have expressed concern that Downtown Manager Aaron Blair’s exit at the end of the month will stall inner-city momentum, but Blair has clearly stated that he expects that momentum to continue.
“There are a lot of key players who have stepped up to the table,” Blair said Monday. “Things are still moving forward all over downtown. I had a meeting today with an individual who’s very interested in the Albany Heights building, and I believe we have things worked out where he can move forward with a very nice residential plan there. That could be huge for downtown and tie in nicely with the other things we’re doing.
“Getting that (Albany Heights) done is a very high priority for me. I’d like to have that done before I leave, but I’m confident we’re going to make it happen whether it’s before I leave or after. I plan to keep working on this development plan right up until I leave (for a similar job in Fresno, Calif.). I have meetings planned non-stop.”
James Malphrus, who serves as president of the local Kattalistt Group, a collection of mostly younger, civic-minded professionals who have expressed interest in leasing the former IRS building on Pine Avenue, said he’s also conducting meetings to talk with potential business owners interested in sub-leasing rooms in the 11,176-square-foot IRS building.
“I’m feeling more confident all the time that this is going to happen,” Malphrus said. “I’ve had several people contact me about space in that building, and we’ve contacted some that we think would be good tenants. There has been a steady line of people coming to see us; we have four or five appointments already set up for this week. We’re also talking about ways we can enhance the retail/consignment space we plan to manage.”
Ward III Albany City Commissioner B.J. Fletcher, who was returning from a city meeting in Savannah Monday when contacted by The Herald, said she’s never made it a secret that she loves Albany’s downtown, even though one of her businesses, B.J.’s Country Buffet, is located on the west side of town, at 2401 Dawson Road. Fletcher even admitted that she’s looking closely at potential business opportunities downtown.
“I don’t care if people don’t believe me, but my decision to leave downtown (and close Cafe 230) was a simple business decision,” Fletcher said. “Rent was more than $3,500 a month, and utilities were right behind that. If I did less than $8,000 in business a week, I was lost. (Business partner) Sarah (Edmonds) opened Wild Flour (at 2206 Dawson Road) and most of my downtown customers followed me to B.J.’s. Even so, I’ve always considered myself a part of downtown.
“I’ve always said, and I still believe, that a city’s downtown is its heartbeat. I’ll go to my grave saying that. That’s why I’m excited about the way this new development group is doing things, especially by keeping rent affordable. Hopefully we’ll get business owners who realize they have to come in with about six months worth of rent and overhead, people who realize it takes hard work, advertising, and long hours to make a business a success. And it won’t work without city leadership and community support.”