Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks says the city’s focus is on public safety, economic development, public education and quality of life. To that end, the city is investing in several projects. It is building a new city hall. The site of a former Kroger will be renovated for a new, larger Athens-Limestone Library, a $4-6 million project. There also are plans to renovate the county courthouse, and there is a fundraiser to rebuild an old Civil War-era school and fort, creating a museum at the battle site, only a half mile from downtown.
The Spirit of Athens, the city’s downtown redevelopment organization, has several projects underway. Those include rebranding The Square, Athens’ downtown district, with new banners and logo. It also is working on grants and sponsorships that would replace existing strands of white lights along the tops of the buildings.
New bike racks will be installed, and the group is working with The Square businesses to help promote the square as a dining and shopping destination, as well as a venue for the city’s well-established festivals. The group is hosting a new festival, the Athens Grease Festival, “celebrating all things fried.”
Athens also is working on economic development through historic preservation – the 15-block downtown historic district has more than 90 buildings that are listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. It recently conducted an inventory of downtown businesses and shops. Ten new businesses opened downtown in 2011.
Jennifer Williamson, director of the Greater Limestone County Chamber of Commerce, says the city is rezoning property to use as loft apartments, and plans are being submitted.
Athens, hit by the 2011 tornadoes, has taken a team approach to rebuilding and recovery, Marks says. “This community has truly pulled together, ” he says.
Decatur’s new Downtown Decatur Art Center, an $8.6-million, 43, 000-square-foot center, is expected to open in the summer and open to students for classes this fall. It is a partnership between Calhoun Community College and Athens State University, with support from the city of Decatur, the Morgan County Commission and the Decatur Downtown Redevelopment Authority.
The downtown authority is working hard on several projects, including loft development, the 2nd Avenue streetscape, with plans soon to start the Lower Bank streetscape, the Casa Grande pocket park and the Lee Street Park.
In addition, the authority has a retail recruitment committee that has a merchant group up and running, as well as a retail development strategy. It also helps local businesses with grants and other incentives and has a new website. The city recently purchased Decatur Commons, a 7.4-acre site that will be revitalized. The city also completed the Ingalls Harbor Pavilion, and there are plans for a pedestrian bridge to connect the Riverfront district with downtown.
“We have attracted Kohl’s, an Olive Garden and other retail businesses to the city, ” says Mayor Don Stanford. “We’ve also had several events here, including our first Mardi Gras parade.”
John Seymour, president and CEO of the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce, says retail development for the entire city is moving along. A new investor in the Decatur Mall likely means even more new development, such as a movie theater.
“In 2011, we had the highest retail sales tax revenue in the history of Decatur, ” he says. “We are beefing up retail, and that means more opportunity here at home, as well as for those who come here to shop. We are a shopping hub, and we have gotten more aggressive about retail recruitment.”
The authority exceeded its campaign to raise $2.5 million for downtown redevelopment and is working on its five-year strategic plan. In some cases, it already has exceeded its goals.
Stanford says he wants to see the city do more with the popular Point Mallard Water Park. “We need to add new water features, including a lazy river, as well as other attractions, such as an archery range, ” he says.
In Hartselle, where downtown already is known for its specialty antique shops, there are new streetlamps and other improvements. Hartselle’s new high school is set to open in December. The $40 million Hartselle High School features a 1, 200-seat competition gym, a practice gym and more. It is a partnership between city schools and the city of Hartselle, says Mayor Dwight Tankersley. “It is a replacement school and it is going to be great, ” he says. “It’s been a great partnership.” The school system will use the existing high school for a 7th and 8th grade center.
Hartselle also is working on a $3.4 million aquatics center, which should be ready in time for the Memorial Day weekend, Tankersley says. “It is a replacement of our existing municipal pool, which was 30 years old, ” he says. “It is a U-shaped pool with a 25 meter competition pool and a stage that we hope will attract events. There will be a child’s pool, several splash pads, a slide and new changing/shower areas.”
Lawrence County schools are moving full speed ahead with a new agriculture- based diploma track. Named one of the first “innovative school systems” by the state, the program will include primary and secondary students. The aim of the new track will be to increase students’ awareness of the fields of agriculture and their importance to the county, says Superintendent Heath Grimes.
“We are going to work with other entities to allow students to learn more about the agriculture field and perhaps make a career of it. It is our No. 1 economic engine, ” Grimes says.
The new diploma is an advanced one with an agricultural endorsement, Grimes says. “We need more industry, that is true, but we also should not overlook agriculture, which is a multi-million dollar industry, ” he says. In fact, Lawrence County is the leading county in the state for incorporating precision agriculture into farming.
In Moulton, the city is moving utilities underground, with sidewalks and lighting, says Mayor Ray Alexander. The city also is purchasing a former National Guard armory to remodel for a fire station. And it plans to purchase acreage for an expanded sports complex, walking and biking trails and more.
And in Courtland, incorporated in 1819, Mayor Ted Letson touts the Lawrence County Sports Hall of Fame and the Courtland Historical Museum, recently opened. A local physician has purchased downtown buildings with the aim of renovating them and attracting business, as well as having a place for community events. And the city is working on events and attractions to bring people in, he says. “A four-lane road bypasses us, so you have to come up with things that people want to come back to, and we are focusing on our history and heritage.”
The city’s Tennessee Valley Airport, located in Courtland, is set to get some airstrip improvements to help take the load off Huntsville in-flight testing, Letson says. “It’s a nice airport and we are working on extending the runway and other improvements.”
By Lori Chandler Pruitt