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Hub Cities Enhance Downtowns to Increase Cities’ Marketability

April 8, 2016
JWM Ventures building rendering of new hotel/conference center coming to Valdosta.

This story originally appeared in the April 2016 edition of Georgia's Cities. 

Formed out of a collaborative meet-and-greet of may­ors during GMA’s 2013 annual Mayor’s Day Confer­ence, the GMA Hub Cities Initiative is described by GMA Executive Director Lamar Norton as an effort used to “harness and leverage the state’s full econom­ic potential.” Norton provided this description in the February 2014 issue of Georgia Trend magazine, which highlighted each individual hub city across Georgia – Albany, Athens, Augusta, Brunswick, Columbus, Dalton, Gainesville, Hinesville, Macon, Rome, Savannah, Valdo­sta and Warner Robbins.
 
“These cities are starting the conversation around and addressing the issues of job creation, housing, transportation, education and other ways to increase the overall marketability of their communities,” said GMA’s Director of Urban Affairs Al Outland.
 
Most recently, the city officials of Valdosta and Bruns­wick have announced downtown development plans that will greatly enhance their respective city centers.
 
On March 1, the city of Brunswick’s Downtown Development Authority and Richland Estate, artisan producers of Richland Rum, jointly announced the establishment of a new Rum Distillery in the city’s downtown. The new 6,400-square-foot facility will be housed in a renovated landmark building and will offer public tours and tastings. Preparations for the renova­tion and construction project are under way with an estimated early 2017 completion date.
 
The new Distillery—Richland Estate’s second—will craft two kinds of rum both made in Richland. The Brunswick Distillery will apply the same time honored artisan techniques and use the same hand built copper pot stills as the Richland Distillery to handcraft Rum, but will not age the Virgin Rum multiple years in oak barrels. Maintaining Richland Rum’s Unique ‘Single Es­tate’ status, also the Brunswick Distillery will strictly source pure, unrefined cane syrup from the company’s own sugar cane plantation near Richland.
 
According to Richland Estate’s Proprietor Erik Vonk Brunswick was the perfect fit for the estate’s expan­sion, “The coastal setting and the ambiance offered by historic downtown Brunswick fit so well with the arti­san signature of the Richland Rum brand.”
 
Successful Public-Private Endeavor
Selection of Brunswick as the location for the compa­ny’s second distilling facility and the realization of the project is the direct result of close collaboration be­tween Brunswick’s Downtown Development Author­ity and the owners of Richland Estate.
 
Similar to the company’s existing Distillery in Rich­land, the new facility in Brunswick has been designed to facilitate a completely open view of all artisan pro­cesses during public tours and educational events.
 
According to Executive Director of the Brunswick Downtown Development Authority Mathew Hill, the introduction of the new distillery helps the Brunswick City Council meet several goals including the creation of more jobs, placing a tenant in a long-vacant building and the possibility of increased tourism.
 
There’s nowhere but up for Brunswick, said Hill, who credited the recent boom and interest in down­town development efforts to the economy “looking up.” In addition to welcoming the distill­ery city officials and residents are look­ing into the possibilities of bringing a Trader Joe’s, shoe store and solidifying downtown Brunswick as a hub for arts with its multiple downtown art galler­ies and meet-ups.
 
It’s the city’s hope that these and oth­er plans including ones to update Mary Ross Park and connect it to downtown Brunswick will increase the city’s mar­ketability.
 
“All of this shows that we are ready for business and easy to work with,” said Hill. “We are certainly hoping that it will garner interest from other businesses.”
 
Brunswick will also participate in the Georgia Downtown Renaissance Part­nership, an effort of the Georgia Mu­nicipal Association, the Georgia Cities Foundation and the University of Geor­gia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Govern­ment and the College of Environment and Design. The Georgia Downtown Renaissance Partnership will combine the resources of seven municipal and university organizations to assist Bruns­wick in efforts to reinvigorate their downtowns through the Renaissance Strategic Visioning & Planning (RSVP) and the Downtown Renaissance Fel­lows programs. “This is perfect timing to incorporate this program,” said Hill. “Our last master planning was complet­ed in 2006 and the world has changed since then.”
 
Valdosta Welcomes Hotel, Conference Center
From the moment now Mayor Pro Tem of Monticello Stone Workman and long-time partner of JWM Ventures, a Las Ve­gas-based real estate development com­pany,  approached Valdosta Mayor John Gayle about the possibility of bringing a new hotel and conference to the city’s downtown, Gayle was sold. In January the city of Valdosta announced their new, 125-room hotel and conference center complete with a rooftop restau­rant, which will be leased out by a local restaurant.
 
The Valdosta City Council sold a park­ing lot on Central Avenue between Lee Street and McKey Street to the Central Valdosta Downtown Authority (CVDA) for $250,000. The CVDA will then sell the lot to JWM Ventures for the hotel project.
 
Gayle is confident this new Wynd­ham Garden Hotel will help retain Val­dosta State University graduates and city residents, which has been an issue for the city for years, Gayle said. In addi­tion, JWM Ventures will also construct a new Customer Service Center to be leased by the city with plans to acquire it at the end of the 20-year lease. The de­velopment company will also construct a new parking deck.
 
“Everybody in Valdosta can’t believe this is happening,” said Gayle in re­sponse to excitement felt by Valdosta’s city officials, residents and visitors. But, they aren’t the only ones looking for­ward to this new hotel, so are Valdosta businesses. According to Gayle, a law firm in the city has signed on to relo­cate its approximately 50 employees to downtown, while another downtown business is investing in a multi-million dollar expansion.
 
According to Gayle, this hotel project will positively affect the city in multiple ways by serving as an appeal for tour­ists, allowing the city to increase its per­mit fees and an increase for local busi­nesses including local developers who Founder of VWM Ventures John McDon­ald has vowed to use for the more than $15 million project.
 
Both Workman and Stone agree that the beginning stage of this project has been a smooth one.
 
“Leadership in Valdosta is so good and unified that we were all on the same page at the beginning,” Workman said.

This type of strong leadership is one that can be found in a majority of the Hub Cities, said Outland, who believes the downtown development plans of Brunswick and Valdosta will encourage ideas and opportunities for other cities statewide.