“I just did an appraisal for a guy who is leaving town, being relocated,” said Brock. “He said the one thing he’s going to miss the most is our downtown. He’s not from here, but he hopes to eventually come back. He loves the community, and downtown is the heart of our community.”
Downtown expands over the years
In 1981, the original downtown development district encompassed most of the area between the Oostanaula River and East Second Street up to Sixth Avenue.
The district was amended in 1984 to take in areas between the Etowah River and Second Avenue out to Central Plaza. Additional property east of Sixth Avenue up to Turner McCall Boulevard was added, along with Heritage Park behind the Coosa River levee and the West Third Street corridor. Much of the South Broad Street corridor was also added to the district in the same year.
Downtown was expanded again in 1986 to include the entire Between the Rivers district and the Village Shopping Center along Turner McCall.
In 1996, the Ridge Ferry Park area and property along Riverside Parkway out to Chieftains Museum were added to the downtown district.
Rethinking the district
Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Ann Arnold wants to have the district redefined and has asked the DDA board membership to take a long look at the district. “It’s a bit overwhelming,” said Arnold.
She said Ridge Ferry Park is certainly not something that the DDA is going to administer, but the Riverside area was added in 1996 to take advantage of potential funding for the new Senior
Center. Arnold said South Rome now has its own redevelopment agency, and areas such as Central Plaza and the Village Shopping Center should not, by definition, be included in a downtown development district. Both are strip-shopping centers.
By redefining downtown, Arnold feels it will be easier to put the proper focus on making it an even more viable economic factor for the community.
“Downtown is the historic core, the traditional central business district where the majority of your buildings are pre-World War II,” said Arnold. “It was as recently as 50 years ago — government and religion, shopping and civic. It’s such a treasure to the community that it has to be defined and then developed within that area.”
Arnold said Rome’s unique downtown architecture helps set downtown apart from everyplace else in Rome.
“You don’t see that when you experience other parts of the community,” said Arnold. “It’s not until you experience downtown that you have an understanding of the community at large.”
Emphasis on housing
Arnold wants one of the primary focuses of the DDA to be bringing additional housing downtown. Currently, there are 152 residential units in the immediate area of Broad Street. That does not take into account all of the residential structures in the city’s historic Between the Rivers district.
Retired Georgia Highlands professor and former city commissioner George Pullen put six apartment units above the building housing his Pullen’s Ordinary Bicycle Shop, 105 Broad St. Pullen and his wife Ann Pullen have lived in one of the apartments for close to 16 years.
“We have thoroughly enjoyed it down here,” Pullen said. “I’ve got one of the other apartments vacant right now, but they tend to stay rented pretty much.”
Harvey Keiser and her husband Don Keiser were among the first tenants to move into Forrest Place, the rehabilitation of the old Forrest Hotel, at 436 Broad St.
“We absolutely adore it,” Keiser said. “It’s been such a fine experience to be right here when things are happening. We can even watch the Christmas parade from our window.”
Keiser said that the one question people ask most often about living downtown involves the noise.
“That first night, we didn’t sleep very well,” Keiser said. “After that we haven’t heard it at all.”
“When more people live downtown, they’re naturally going to support the goods and services that are already there,” Arnold said. “They are very, very important to the economic stability and growth of your district.”
She said residential users contribute to the safety, cleanliness and activity of the area.
“They are always aware and conscious of how things look and what’s going on,” Arnold said. “They’re an extra set of eyes that contribute in so many ways.”
Attracting new businesses
Arnold does not want to put all of her eggs in one basket though. She recognizes that a balance of residential and commercial use combined with government services is critical to the downtown business district’s future.
“The challenges are going to be incentives, codes, expenses,” Arnold said. “What can we provide these people?”
Arnold, who has been Rome’s downtown development boss for almost 11 years, is acutely aware of the need to recruit businesses and services that are needed to support a vibrant mixed-use downtown community.
Household goods — the kind of day-to-day things needed to function in a home — is one sector of the business world that Arnold recognizes is needed downtown.
“Cleaning products, paper towels, toothpaste — where would you go right now in downtown and get those kinds of things on a day-to-day basis?” asked Arnold. “You’ve got to get in your car and drive somewhere.”
She said that in recruiting new businesses downtown, she is not looking simply to fill a vacant building.
“It can’t be about just collecting rent,” said Arnold. “We don’t want to have constant turnover; you want successful businesses with longevity.
“Most of the people come because of the money. They hear that we’ve got some incentives. In the almost 11 years that I’ve been here, I’ve not done any active recruitment and haven’t had to,” Arnold continued.
She recognizes, though, that she does need to seek out particular types of businesses needed for the growing mix of residential and commercial use downtown.
What the DDA offers
Arnold thinks the Downtown Development Authority is not being used to its fullest potential.
“We certainly have low-interest loans, but there are other ways that we can partner in development with not only the individual developer but with city government and other entities,” said Arnold. “We can be a partner at so many levels.”
During the last decade, the DDA has facilitated 18 redevelopment loans, adding up to $5,271,150 to go with more than $21.1 million in private funds. Those projects have created more than 309 jobs for the downtown district. The most recent project involved a $130,000 GMA/Georgia Cities loan for the Johnny’s New York Style Pizza project at 233 Broad St.
Bob Blumberg, who owns the new Johnny’s, said he chose to locate downtown because of the vibrancy of the district.
“The day traffic has been great for our lunch trade, and all the activities that happen at night and on the weekends has been great,” said Blumberg.
The only drawback has been parking, and Blumberg said he’s getting his customers used to using the Third Avenue parking deck, for which he provides free vouchers.
“It’s probably been a life saver,” said Blumberg.
The ‘parking problem’
Parking has been a consistent issue for the downtown district. The DDA manages almost 500 parking spaces in the three downtown decks as well as 142 surface lot parking spaces. Then there’s the on-street parking that is available downtown. Arnold and her parking manager Becky Smyth are in the process of absorbing information from yet another outside study of parking in the downtown district.
The “parking problem” in downtown Rome is probably exacerbated by the cultural habits of Rome motorists, who haven’t quite gotten a grip on the concept that they don’t have to park right in front of the door of their destination.
The DDA had recently exhausted its potential pool of money for façade improvements to businesses downtown.
Thanks to a $5,000 grant from the Business Improvement District group — merchants that have agreed to tax themselves in order to provide additional money for enhancement and promotion of downtown — the authority was able this past week to provide almost $2,400 for improvements to three properties on Broad Street.
Rome will have a chance to really showcase its downtown district when it hosts the Georgia Downtown Conference on Sept. 27-30, 2011. More than 200 downtown managers and leaders from across the state are expected to attend.