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Cities Combat Downtown Challenges

April 19, 2017  |  By Gale Horton Gay
This article appeared in the April 2017 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
There’s nothing small about the issues small towns face in enhancing their downtowns. Whether the commu­nities are in rural, urban or suburban locations, many share similar challenges in keeping their downtowns relevant. Some areas struggle with revitalization, while others seek ways to continually make their downtowns attractive for businesses and consumers at a time of evolving shopping trends.

Cuthbert is a rural city in southwest Georgia with a population of 3,500. It’s downtown square once was a thriving place dominated by apparel shops, but all that’s changed. With the emergence of malls and increased transportation to get to larger cities, consumers drifted away from shopping on the square, according to Cuth­bert Mayor Steve Whatley. Now it’s occupied by three loan companies, a jewelry store, hardware store, service station and coffee shop. The city’s library is also located on the square, which Whatley said makes a nice addition to the area. However, there are also five vacant buildings.
 
Whatley recalled that when he was growing up shoe, clothing and other “dry good store” dominated Downtown Cuthbert, but that was before people start­ed going to Albany and Columbus to go to the malls.
 
Cuthbert officials have been working steadily to bol­ster the square. Three years ago, grant funds were used to upgrade lighting and make sidewalk improvements in downtown as well as revamp a nearby park.
 
“We hope our efforts will attract businesses on the square,” Whatley said. “We have had some limited success.”
 
Some new businesses have come to Cuthbert, but not all have had staying power.
 
One of Cuthbert’s challenges has been parking on the square, which was originally laid out in the early 1900s. Accommodating handicapped spaces and allow­ing adequate space for larger size vehicles as well as trucks has limited the amount of parking on the square, especially for those wanting a “fast in and out” experi­ence, the mayor said. Two off-the-square parking areas are now available.
 
But, there is hope on the horizon.
 
Whatley said that Andrew College, a small, private, liberal arts school in Cuthbert, has expressed interest in turning a couple downtown buildings into classroom space. There’s also another building being redone and a pizza restaurant may occupy that space, he added.
 
While officials in Cuthbert have their eyes on the future, they are not without concern about the past. In March 2017, the city council adopted a historic preser­vation order that includes the downtown area.
 
The city of Stone Mountain lies in the shadow of massive Stone Mountain Park, one of Georgia’s top tourism attractions. The city, which isoften referred to as a villag, has a population of 6,800.
 
Stone Mountain Mayor Patricia Wheeler remains op­timistic about getting downtown buildings back to full occupancy and increasing foot traffic along the city’s main thoroughfare. The challenge remains how to get drivers and passengers in the 30,000 vehicles that cut through the city during rush hours every morning and evening to stop and stay awhile.
 
Wheeler said during the 1980s and 1990s the vil­lage’s Main Street was booming with an interesting mix of mom and pop businesses.
 
“Every building was full,” Wheeler said.
 
After the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, things began to change. Wheeler said many of the owners of those mom and pop businesses decided to retire. New businesses came and went and some buildings sat va­cant for extended periods of time.
 
Several years ago, the city launched a streetscape initiative installing new pavers, granite curbs, benches, lighting fixtures and more that freshened downtown’s appearance.
 
Stone Mountain’s downtown is a stretch of several blocks of Main Street and the streets running off of it. Currently there are about 15 shops ranging from a cycle shop, home decorating shop, health food store, six to seven restaurants as well as ART Station, an art center with a theater where live performances are held. An art incubator where eight artists lease space and work side by side opened four years ago and now it’s one of the stops on the quarterly Art Stroll evenings. Wheeler called the incubator “very successful.”
 
A new coffee shop is expected to open soon and the city’s Downtown Development Authority is planning to purchase one of three buildings currently available for sale.
 
Georgia Military College has 13 campuses in Geor­gia including one in Stone Mountain, just off Main Street. Wheeler said they are interested in expanding their presence in the city.
 
“We are picking up a little bit,” she said.
 
With the coming of spring, Stone Mountain’s down­town will be the site of a farmers’ market and weekly outdoor music event called “Tunes by the Tracks.”
The city of Stone Mountain has had a Historic Pres­ervation Commission in place since 1996 with a goal of protecting “the historical, cultural and aesthetic heri­tage of the city of Stone Mountain.”
 
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