Downtown Manager Aaron Blair presents his second state of downtown address to a small crowd at Albany’s Flint RiverQuarium Monday evening. Despite a dismal 2013, Blair said there is optimism surrounding downtown development in 2014. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)
ALBANY — Downtown Manager Aaron Blair was feeling “inspired” Tuesday afternoon, fresh out of a meeting with representatives of Charlotte, N.C.-based developer Shandon Development Properties and the local Hilton Garden Inn and coming off his well-received — if sparsely attended — St. Patrick’s Day state of downtown address Monday evening.
“You get tired when you feel like you’re pushing uphill by yourself or with a very small group,” Blair said. “You just get tired. But I’m not going to lie, it inspires you when you start to see things turn around.”
Blair had reason for optimism. Just this week, even as he was preparing to give Monday’s address and as he was meeting to discuss future downtown development with Shandon representative Patrick Plettner, leases were signed on three downtown properties that had been vacant for quite some time (218, 238 and 304 West Broad Ave.). Blair hasn’t even had time to determine what kinds of businesses will locate in the properties, but he’s heard there will be a women’s clothing boutique, a holistic health care establishment and some other business in the medical field.
“All the feedback I got from last night was positive,” Blair said Tuesday of the state of downtown address that drew an audience of around 40. “I think the weather kept attendance down, but even one individual who had been more negative about downtown left as a positive, someone on our side.
“Then we met today with Shandon and Hilton Garden Inn representatives to talk about their part in downtown development and their relationship with the city, and that was a very upbeat meeting. I think they want to be a full-fledged partner as part of the development that’s starting to build downtown. The Shandon representative even took a list of businesses that might relocate downtown to try and sell them. There’s just a lot of good news right now.”
Blair warned address attendees Monday that downtown news from 2013 was not as positive as the previous year’s. Even so, he noted that investment from the private sector ($1 million) still far exceeded public sector investment ($650,000) during the year. That’s a trend the downtown manager said he wants to continue.
“That’s the key to downtown development,” he said. “And if some of the projects that are being discussed right now come through, I think you’re going to see much more private development. That’s what we want. I want to turn the bond money that (the Albany-Dougherty Inner City Authority) has (for development) in and tell them we don’t need it. That’s my goal.”
Blair said public investment for the year centered on ADICA-managed projects including the D’town Art Park ($26,379.31), the Pine Avenue Streetscape project ($479,587.17), three canoe/kayak launches along the Flint River ($35,991) and a facade grant program ($88,604). The investment authority also worked on historic Albany Theatre and Old Northside Neighborhood projects during 2013 but did not expend bond money.
“We’ve kind of held off on doing anything with the Albany Theatre because there is private interest in that project,” Blair said. “The street lighting project in the Old Northside Neighborhood is under way, but the work that’s been done so far has been financed by SPLOST (special-purpose local-option sales tax) money.”
Blair said his goals for 2014 include development of the city-owned Albany Heights building; loft development; development of an art market; generating interest in the historic Holman Mule Barn; the planned construction of a Waffle House restaurant; activities centered around kayaking, canoeing, running, biking and fishing; development of new events such as a triathlon and a mountain bike trail; more streetscape projects; cultural arts programs; unique retail outlets, and the city’s participation in the state Department of Community Affairs Main Street Start Up program.
“You’ll notice that a lot of these goals focus on giving our millennials, our professional young people, things to stay actively involved in,” Blair said. “That’s a key issue for a lot of smaller cities, the ‘brain drain’ that happens when their talented and energetic young people leave. If we can give our millennials things to do in a smaller-city setting without the hassles of big-city living, we’ll be much better off.”