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The Georgia Cities Foundation: Helping to Create Vibrant Downtowns

April 8, 2015  |  Mike Starr, President & CEO, The Georgia Cities Foundation

Mike Starr
Since its inception in 1999, the Geor­gia Cities Foundation (GCF) has strived to serve as a catalyst for down­town revitalization. Our goal has been to promote economically sustainable projects and to build public-private partnerships that will help ensure the long-term health and economic vitality of Georgia’s downtown areas. Now mid-way through our second decade, the Founda­tion continues to be both an advocate and a catalyst for responsible downtown development.
 
Since 2002, the Foundation has worked to accom­plish this goal through the infusion of capital from its various financing programs. An initial $9 million chal­lenge grant from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation jump-started the Foundation’s Revolving Loan Fund (RLF) and encouraged other foundation and corporate support. To date, through the Foundation’s RLF, Green Communities Fund and State Small Business Credit Initiative (SSBCI) loan programs, the Foundation has provided more than $20 million in low-interest financ­ing and access to capital for more than 120 downtown projects in 54 cities, leveraging more than $94 million in private investment. These investments help to create new businesses and expand existing ones, while add­ing sustainable jobs, downtown housing, restaurants, and “feet on the street”—all helping to create more vi­brant downtowns in our cities.
 
In many of these projects, the Foundation has part­nered with the Georgia Department of Community Af­fairs (DCA) to provide low-interest financing through the Foundation’s RLF program and DCA’s Downtown Development Revolving Loan Fund (DD RLF) program. Some of these projects have created domino-effects in the downtown areas and inspired adjacent spin-off developments.
 
Examples of successful GCF/DCA proj­ects include the following:
 
Flowers Foods Project, Thomasville (2004)
Using conventional financing and loans from the GCF and DD RLF programs, the Thomasville DDA purchased a “white elephant” building that formerly housed a J. C. Penney department store and converted it into office space for Flowers Foods, which is headquartered in Thomasville. The project’s success led to the acquisi­tion and redevelopment of the adjacent Scott Hotel building, which the DDA again purchased and convert­ed into office space for Flowers Foods. More than 190 Flowers Foods employees now work in downtown Thomasville, where they shop, dine and add to the downtown’s vitality.

 
Cakes & Ale Restaurant, Decatur (2011)
Widely-regarded as one of metro Atlanta’s top farm-to-table restaurants, Cakes & Ale was in need of a larger facility in order to grow and expand. In 2011, the restaurant reopened in three rehabilitated historic buildings on Sycamore Street in downtown Decatur.
 
The Baldwin, Milledgeville (2012)
The Baldwin is located in a three-story building constructed in 1903, which once housed a Belk-Matthews department store. Ideally located between Georgia College & State University and Georgia Military College, this project utilized an array of available financing and tax incen­tive programs to rehabilitate the building and convert it into 15 residential apartments and two street-level commercial spaces.
 
While we are proud of the Foundation’s past, we are even more excited about the future. Earlier this year, the Foundation’s Board of Directors completed a strategic planning initiative designed to ensure that the Foundation focuses on the critical few strategic choices that will drive its desired results. In conjunc­tion with this strategy, going forward, the foundation seeks to continue its service to the downtowns of Georgia through innovative programs and services that will help promote sustainability and growth, in­cluding continued investment in the Georgia Down­town Renaissance Partnership. In conjunction with GMA, the University of Georgia, DCA and others, the Downtown Renaissance Partnership programs seek to assist cities with downtown strategic visioning, planning, design and technical services. Presently, the Partnership has three programs: a strategic visioning and planning process (Renaissance Strategic Visioning and Planning); a summer internship program (Down­town Renaissance Fellows) that provides technical assistance for downtown projects, and a 14-week De­sign Practicum class that assigns students to address downtown projects during the course of an academic semester.
 
Second, the Foundation seeks to assist GMA in devel­oping training programs targeting municipal officials and downtown professionals, through such programs as the Heart & Soul Bus Tour, which was repurposed into a mobile workshop in 2014, and an Advanced Downtown Development Authority training course, which was launched in 2014.
 
Third, the foundation seeks to utilize its designa­tion as a Community Development Financial Insti­tution (CDFI) to access federal and private funding sources in order to capitalize its loan programs. The Foundation is one of 21 CDFI’s in Georgia, and we are the only CDFI that focuses exclusively on Georgia’s downtown areas.
 
Healthy and vibrant downtowns remain extremely vital to Georgia’s economic development future. Many downtowns across the state are now experiencing a re­naissance, and the Georgia Cities Foundation is pleased to have been a small part in this effort. We stand ready to assist GMA and its member cities, downtown devel­opment authorities and entrepreneurs in the future.

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