In the late 1980s, downtown Gadsden was a virtual ghost town. With a 60 percent occupancy rate, it was named by Rand McNally as one of the 10 worst cities to live in, scoring a zero in arts and culture.
That stinging assessment was at least one catalyst for change. In the early 1990s, the city hitched its downtown future to the arts, forming a cultural arts foundation, opening the Mary G. Hardin Center for Cultural Arts and sprucing up streets. Gadsden’s “First Fridays” free event highlights downtown merchants, classic cars from all over and entertainment and has been a model for other cities. Occupancy rates are now at 92 percent, says Kay Moore, director of Downtown Gadsden Inc.
“I give credit to our Main Street program at that time, as well as many other efforts that have made our downtown the heartbeat of our city, ” Moore says. “The key is merchants working together.”
As recently as the 1990s, downtowns were barely considered when industries looked for a new location. Today, downtown quality of life and vitality is one of the first things a potential industrial recruit looks for. “If your downtown is dead, it affects the rest of your city, ” Moore says.
At least part of the reason is that companies are trying to meet the needs of workers from two distinct demographic groups, planners say. Baby Boomers are nostalgic for a downtown where they can shop, eat and enjoy entertainment, while young professional, who grew up in the suburbs, yearn for what they missed and want a hip downtown with lots to do, planners say. Both are interested in living downtown.
“From an economic development perspective, it’s fun to have a good, cool downtown and also one where out-of-town guests will help generate sales and lodging tax receipts, ” says Chad Emerson, director of development for the city of Montgomery, which has a popular public/private riverfront development. “Our emphasis now is on building more residential areas downtown, because demand is outstripping inventory.”
The city of Huntsville is about to build $12 million in loft apartments in the heart of downtown and redevelop a former public housing site into a mix of retail, hotel and office, along with a streetscape project that will connect to the recently renovated Courthouse Square area, says Shane Davis, director of urban development. In the last three years, Huntsville has expanded its art museum, made $31 million in improvements to its Von Braun Center and a Veterans Memorial. “People want to live, work and play downtown, and while it is costly, the infrastructure is already there, ” Davis says.
State tax incentive programs have helped cities in surrounding states get downtown projects that Alabama, without such a program, has not. Mobile County is leading an effort in the Alabama Legislature that would give cities the ability to attract developers downtown, says Carol Hunter, communications director for the Mobile Downtown Alliance. One bill gives businesses and investors income tax credit for investing in projects in low-income communities; another gives property owners a state income tax credit for rehabbing historic structures downtown (these bills apply to Birmingham, Mobile, Montgomery and Huntsville); and the third encourages artists to live and work in cultural districts by exempting their works of art from sales taxes.
“Bottom line, between 2003 and 2009, Alabama had only 11 projects that used federal new market tax credits at a value of $71 million, ” Hunter says. “At the same time, Louisiana, who has a state program, had 168 projects at a value of $332 million, and Mississippi had 60 projects with a $276 million value. To stay competitive, Alabama will need these bills to pass.”
Mobile has a retail incubator to help new retailers get comfortable enough to strike out on their own downtown. Officials have cited retail as a missing link in efforts to revitalize the city center.
Birmingham, whose popular entertainment and restaurant districts have spurred more growth, recently opened Railroad Park and broke ground on a new home for the Birmingham Barons baseball team nearby. It also has invested heavily in the Avondale and Woodlawn areas with park renovations, affordable office space for creative professionals, a business incubator and more. “If you can’t boast an exciting downtown, you can’t compete, ” says David Fleming, president/CEO of Operation New Birmingham and former director of Main Street Birmingham. “It’s one of those things you get judged on – it’s a quality of life issue. I think what you get downtown is a really unique look at history, and you can see the life of the city – it’s not made up and it’s not Anywhere, U.S.A. People get a sense of connection with downtown.”
Many cities that have Main Street programs have seen federal funding dwindle, but many soldier on. Corporate, government and community leaders recently helped Main Street Alabama complete a three-year strategic plan for assisting with downtown revitalization around the state. “It focuses on economic development and job creation, building strategically on historic character, ” says Charles Ball, Main Street Alabama board chairman. Proponents say that Main Street is cost-effective, creates jobs and is based on results.
By Lori Chandler Pruitt