This article appeared in the October 2016 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
Clarkesville Main Street Director Mary Beth Horton and Clarkesville City Manager Barbara Kesler with a banner that depicts restoration work at the municipal square.
Clarkesville leaders embraced the opportunity to reshape their community after a devastating fire on March 5, 2014. This fire raged through three buildings on the Clarkesville Square. The Georgia Department of Community Affairs immediately assembled a resource team to offer assistance. One of city leaders’ first steps was to commission an economic revitalization plan through the Renaissance Strategic Visioning and Planning (RSVP) program.
RSVP is a component of the Georgia Downtown Renaissance Partnership, a GMA collaboration with the Institute of Government, the Georgia Cities Foundation and others to assist community economic development efforts throughout the state. According to institute faculty member and one of the RSVP directors, Danny Bivins, the RSVP Plan involves a three-step process that relies on broad community input and support, which leads to implementation.
“This program is about changing the culture of a community,” said GMA’s Executive Director Lamar Norton. “I couldn’t imagine how we would grow, invest and have others support our efforts without a Renaissance of Downtowns across this state.”
Clarkesville Main Street Director Mary Beth Horton and City Manager Barbara Kesler outside the Habersham Community Theater.
Clarkesville is now looking to incorporate the RSVP recommendations into its comprehensive plan to provide a road map to guide long-term revitalization efforts. Some of Clarkesville’s short-term projects include restoring fire-gutted buildings for restaurants and retail located on the downtown square and offering film screenings and plays at the Habersham Community Theater. City officials are also looking forward to beginning a streetscape project that will increase walkability in the downtown.
Clarkesville Main Street, led by Mary Beth Horton, has also completed several action items outlined in the RSVP plan including lifting short-term parking restrictions, building an observation deck overlooking the Soque River in Pitts Park and starting the “Movies on Main” screenings. The process reinvigorated Clarkesville Main Street and inspired other community improvements, like colorful benches that were recently installed in the park.
“This got us all to think outside the box and get real creative,” Horton said.
Clarkesville Mayor Barrie Aycock added, “the RSVP plan provided us with the designs we needed to restore the portion of our downtown that was destroyed by fire,” she said. “It also gave us the framework for a comprehensive plan that will affect our entire city.”
Workers with Clarkesville contractor Blake Rainwater & Associates restore three fire-gutted buildings on the city square.
Public input was also critical to developing the revitalization plan. Residents repeatedly asked the city to clean up an abandoned building complex known as the Old Garment Factory. The city acquired the land in August and plans to repurpose one building and remove a badly deteriorated structure to provide public parking, Kesler said.
The RSVP program inspired what has become a cascade of development projects that are strengthening Clarkesville’s economy and making the city a better place to live and to visit. It also provided a framework that Clarkesville leaders are building on as they prepare a long-term revitalization agenda.
“This is not a document that we never use. This is a document that we use every year to develop our work plan,” Kesler said. “It’s what we use to live by and to set our goals for the future.”
Clarkesville’s resurrection through its partnership with GMA and others has won accolades for innovation and effectiveness. Clarkesville Main Street was named the Georgia Downtown Association’s 2016 Organization of the Year. In 2015, the city won a Four for the Future award from the University of Georgia’s Office of Vice President for Public Service and Outreach and Georgia Trend Magazine to recognize effective public-private collaborations that take on challenging issues.