This article appeared in the April 2018 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
Georgia is a proud state—with good reason! If you ask a Georgian to tell you about their hometown, they’ll happily list all of the reasons why it’s the greatest place in the world. Most will talk about the history that embodies their corner of the state. Local leaders have realized that preserving their downtown corridors supports the stability of their communities and maintains that which makes it unique. This, in turn, makes these areas more desirable destinations and helps stabilize real estate prices. With over 500 cities and towns in 159 counties, one doesn’t have to travel very far before finding one of Georgia’s thriving downtowns.
More and more today, people want to be downtown. In recent years, there has been a shift in the trend of living and working in suburbs to spending time in urban areas.
Historic Preservation is a major reason why downtowns are experiencing growth and revitalization. Not only are there attractive financial incentives available to those who invest in historic buildings, but also, and perhaps more importantly, there’s the intangible effect of preservation; the sense of place, of history, and of permanence which draws people in and makes them feel welcome.
The Georgia State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), a division of the Department of Natural Resources, administers several programs that have been crucial to the economic success of many Georgia communities. One such initiative is called the Certified Local Government (CLG) program. Currently, the program has 95 participants. The criteria to becoming a CLG includes having local historic district zoning and a commission to oversee it. The benefits to the communities include access to federal preservation grants, more direct participation in preservation issues related to their community, and technical assistance from the SHPO. Historic district zoning has given downtowns the tools they need to encourage revitalization through preservation.
Because of its historic preservation ordinance, Rome has received more than $9.5 million in loans that it would have otherwise been ineligible for. That money has leveraged nearly $50 million in reinvestment in the last 17 years. The kinds of projects receiving support vary, but include hotels, loft apartments, and retail space. In 2017, Rome saw more than 40 building rehabilitations and 26 new businesses opened. Rome has over 200 residential spaces between the rivers in its downtown area, with a backlog of demand for more. Nightlife, restaurants, and walkability make it an attractive place for residents and businesses alike. The key to Rome’s success? Great leadership, hard work by well-informed stakeholders, and historic preservation.
It’s not just the larger cities that are experiencing revitalization. Georgia’s small and mid-size communities are also taking advantage of the interest in downtowns and specifically their historic structures.
Tifton is seeing that lifestyle priorities of today’s first-time home buyers emphasize authenticity, access to public space, and historic experiences. To that end, there are several redevelopment projects introducing residential, retail, and restaurants to the downtown area.
Louisville, Georgia’s second state capital, has its share of restaurants and businesses on its quaint downtown streets. The local Downtown Development Authority also offers façade improvement grants to incentivize business owners to maintain their storefronts.
The Canton Grammar School, once a Places in Peril site, is being rehabilitated as part of a multi-use development project in the city’s central business district.
The future of Georgia’s downtowns is very bright indeed. Reinvestment in historic buildings is a proven economic model. Revitalized downtowns offer authenticity, affordability, sustainability, and community, all of which are becoming more and more important to us. It’s important that Georgians continue to urge their state and federal representatives to support legislation that sustains historic preservation like the historic tax credit. We hope to ensure that future generations are raised with an appreciation not only of the history that is conveyed by old buildings, but also the authentic experiences and the sense of place they provide.