ALBANY — Albany and Dougherty County leaders have weathered the storms that ravaged neighborhoods and the region in recent years, and now they think the trajectory is looking up.
With downtown revitalization in full swing, storm recovery efforts ongoing and projects valued at more than $100 million under way, elected officials say they feel good about where the community is headed.
“This year we have about $113 million worth of projects going on,” Albany City Commissioner B.J. Fletcher said. “I think it’s going to take a while to complete those.”
Downtown has seen an influx of new businesses, including restaurants and a microbrewery in recent years. The Albany Museum of Art will be moving into a larger facility downtown, the former Belk Department Store Building on West Broad Avenue.
“I think the art museum is going to be the next piece of the puzzle,” the Ward III commissioner said. “That’s going to give people who you never would have dreamed would come back downtown a reason to come. We’ve got (other) projects we’re looking at in the downtown area. We’ve got a slew of developers that are looking.”
Establishing and maintaining a vibrant downtown is important because it is one way to attract young people to the city and keep some of those who grow up here from moving away to seek areas with more activities, Fletcher said. While in the past a person who got a good job had reason enough to stay in Albany, today’s young people look at more than finding a long-term work gig.
“The generation coming up now will have 24 to 26 jobs in their lifetimes, whereas in my generation people would do 30 years at Procter & Gamble or somewhere else,” she said. “We had to change with those times. We’ve got to do what we can as a community to hang onto the ones who do want to stay here. Downtown is a piece of it.”
While downtown is filled in the daytime with employees in various city and county departments, the courthouse and residents doing business in those offices, in the past the area was a ghost town at the end of the work day.
That is no longer the case, Fletcher said.
“You used to go downtown after 5 — you had plenty of parking spaces,” she said. “(Now) you can’t get parking spaces at night. It’s coming.
“Three years ago I used to say in three to five years people are going to either say ‘What did you do (right)?’, or ‘What happened to you?’ Lots of people are now asking ‘What did you do?’”
Now that downtown has some new anchors joining the Flint RiverQuarium, the Flint River Trail System and the Albany Civic Center, some home-grown businesses are the next piece of the puzzle, Ward IV Albany City Commissioner Chad Warbington said.
“There is definitely some positive buzz downtown,” he said. “What I think we need now is some of those mom-and-pop stores. We need some boutiques and small shops. That’s where your foot traffic is going to come from.”
The two officials say they realize that there are areas that need improvement, including dilapidated housing that needs to come down, the need for more housing construction and fighting crime.
“I think you’ll see a renewed focus with the police and crime protection,” Warbington said. “They’ve got some pretty good technology initiatives that are going to be coming out. We call them force multipliers — ways to over more ground and fight crime more efficiently.”
Ultimately, though, there will need to be more uniformed officers on the streets. The City Commission has requested a study seeking to look at salaries and benefits in comparable cities in the state to determine whether compensation is on par.
Commissioners also are looking at increasing the pace of demolition of houses that are eyesores or are not up to code to improve neighborhoods.
Instead of tearing down about 20 such houses, as has been the case in previous years, as many as 75 could be targeted, Warbington said.
Among those projects, the city hopes to focus on neighborhoods with several blighted properties, where tearing down several will make a noticeable impact, encourage redevelopment and give current residents the incentive to improve their properties.
“We’re going to be doing three times, four times, as much demolition work for blight,” the Ward IV commissioner said. “It’s not something to celebrate, but it’s going to make a huge impact.
“It’s one thing to tear things down, but we really need is for things to be going back in.”
New housing is another key piece of the redevelopment puzzle, along with developing industrial property ready for a new company to move in, Fletcher said.
“Housing is tremendous,” she said. “(When company executives are looking at a potential location), they’re going to ask, ‘Where are the houses? Where are we going to put our people?’ We don’t have a lot of low- to moderate-income housing.
One area where Warbington would like to see more effort is in recreation. Some local facilities were damaged by Hurricane Michael, and some just need to be restored from disrepair.
“I think we need to invest in what we have,” he said. “They’re antiquated and old. Some of them need general repairs.”
Taxpayers in the county have supported improvements by backing sales tax initiatives for capital projects and transportation, and they are seeing those investments returned in the form of development, paving of alleys and street resurfacing, Fletcher said.
For the county, building on momentum and storm recovery are intertwined. Since a 2017 tornado damaged the Radium Springs area, the Dougherty County Commission has invested widely in the area. The county is in line to receive a significant portion of $64.9 million in federal funds to help in the recovery from two 2017 tornadoes and the impact of Tropical Storm Irma, which hit the region that same year.
The majority of the grant money, about 80 percent, is earmarked to go to three zip codes, one of which is 31705, which includes east Albany. The grant contains components for infrastructure, housing and economic revitalization for affected areas.
The first area that will be addressed with grant funding is housing.
“That will have a big impact on the community in terms of redevelopment,” Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas said. “We’re going to continue to invest in Radium Springs so that we can utilize it as a natural resource that serves as a community draw and provides a sense of community.”
Part of the investment is a trail system, which will begin with a visitor’s facility at the former Radium golf course, and eventually reach downtown Albany. Commissioners also have asked state lawmakers to assist with the restoration of a historic bridge located at the site where the flow of the spring that makes up Skywater Creek flows into the Flint River.
“All things considered, we’ve done a good job recovering from the disasters” said Cohilas, who seemed evidently excited about the trail connecting to an existing riverwalk alongside the Flint River downtown.
Like the city, the county is using transportation sales tax dollars for road resurfacing and improvement projects. The widening of Georgia Highway 133, a state project, also will have a big impact in terms of transportation and economic development, Cohilas said.
The four-laning project has been completed from Valdosta to Moultrie, and the northern end of the route will be completed in sections over the next several years. The county likely will focus resources in the area to take advantage of the development, Cohilas said.
“The next (step) for the county is going to be allocating money that we have, that we’re receiving from the federal government to build out from that,” he said.
The county also will continue to support downtown revitalization and economic development, Cohilas said.
“We’re going to continue to participate in the (Albany-Dougherty County) Economic Development Commission to support its mission to bring new jobs and to bring in new industry,” he said. “We just recently approved a road improvement that’s going to be serving our good friend Georgia-Pacific (which is building a $130 million manufacturing facility in east Albany).
“We approved $800,000 to help the arts center (Albany Museum of Art) locate downtown.”
All in all, Cohilas said he thinks the county is heading in a good direction.
For County Commissioner Russell Gray, it’s important that the county has accomplished these things while being frugal with taxpayer money.
“I think what you’ll find is the county is working on serving its citizens, the serious problems, and being financially responsible for our citizens,” he said. “That’s the strength of our tax base.”
The advances made in recent years have reaffirmed the county’s role as a “regional player,” he said, and the widening of Highway 133 will be significant going forward. As that development occurs, it is important to protect the rural feel for neighborhoods, many of whose residents chose to live outside the city for just that very reason, Gray said.
“As roads get completed and new bridges and infrastructure come in, how do we protect (that) and how do we bring about change?” he said. “What do we do to improve property values and also look at industrial and business growth, because that adds to our tax base?”