Downtowns are Back!

May 2, 2019

This article appeared in the April 2019 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.

I n the early part of the 20th century, Downtown Braselton was the place to be. The downtown Braselton Brothers Department Store offered dry goods, shoes, clothing, housewares, toys and even produce.

GMA Downtown Development Manager Stephanie Aylworth said at the time of Downtown Braselton’s heyday, downtowns across Georgia and the country were thriving.

“Downtowns weren’t just the heart of a community; they made up the entire city or town,” she said. “Downtowns were walkable, livable and social, and the center of a community’s economy. They were composed of businesses, factories, government buildings, churches, residences and most importantly, people.”

The rise of the automobile and the construction of the nation’s highways, however, spelled trouble for Braselton and many downtowns. People disappeared from the city center and began to shop in suburban and exurban malls and strip shopping centers.
“One of the biggest contributing factors to the decline of downtowns can be attributed to what veteran urban planner, Walter Kulash, termed ‘The Second Motor Age.’ This era came into full bloom after WWII,” Aylworth explained. “During this time the domination of the auto and roadbuilding industries, coupled with the passage of the 1956 Interstate Highway Act, decentralized America’s downtowns.”

Downtown Braselton began to decline after a new generation of the Braselton family pursued other interests, and many moved away. As the family lost interest in downtown, so did many of its former visitors.

Braselton’s decline continued into the 1990s when the Braselton Brothers Department store closed leaving one more vacant building among the many others that had long since been without tenants.

Scholars took note of the decline of downtowns like Braselton across the country.
“In the 1960s innovators like Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte saw a need to begin transitioning the design of cities for cars and shopping centers to that of people or creating a sense of place in communities,” Aylworth said. “This paradigm shift was an attempt to create social life in public spaces but was eclipsed by the urban planning ideology of modernism and automobile transportation-focused development.”
Today, many suburban malls are declining, and business owners, residents and visitors are once again interested in being downtown. City leaders who proactively promote downtown as a place to invest in, live in, work in and play in are seeing success.

For Braselton, a community development block grant that helped fund the renovation of the Braselton Brothers Department Store got the ball rolling on its downtown revitalization. The city also reactivated its Downtown Development Authority.
“We had some plans in place, and there was a lot of organizing, planning and strategizing but it wasn’t until we had a full-time staff in place that all that planning evolved into action,” said Braselton Downtown Manager Amy Pinnell.

The renovated department store is now fully occupied with nine tenants including the downtown office. Visitors saw the city’s efforts to revitalize downtown and wanted to be a part of it.

According to Pinnell, people started calling, looking for space and wanting to open a business downtown. New stores, restaurants and a brewpub have all recently opened in Downtown Braselton. Pinnell also credits Georgia’s Main Street Program with helping the city turn around its downtown.

Aylworth said the Main Street Program is a helpful tool for cities across the state.
“In the early 1980s, the National Main Street Center introduced a pioneering approach to downtown revitalization,” she said. “The Main Street Approach™ helps communities get started with revitalization and grows with them over time.”

Americus, Cordele, Conyers, Greensboro, Madison, Milledgeville, Monroe, Moultrie, Toccoa, Thomasville, Valdosta and many other Georgia cities found success with the Main Street Approach™.

Thomasville Main Street and Business Development Director April Norton points to the Main Street program as an essential piece of the city’s downtown growth.

“After desegregation in the 1960s, many of the downtown businesses moved out of downtown, leaving empty storefronts” Norton explained. “We started a Main Street Program in 1981 and since then have taken an incremental approach to downtown revitalization, which has allowed Downtown Thomasville to grow while preserving our historic architecture. Now we have more than 90 retail shops and 30 restaurants.”
In 2014, Thomasville took a four-block area of downtown, known as “The Bottom,” which originated as an African-American and Jewish business district in the latter part of the 19th century, and asked the community to share with city leaders its vision for the area. The community decided it wanted the area to be a creative district.

The Ritz Amphitheater and Park are complete, and the city will complete the new streetscapes this year. Today, residents and visitors enjoy a creative, cultural and artistic vibe in The Bottom District.

“Providing an opportunity for residents and community leaders to engage in the planning and design process really helped shaped the whole downtown area,” Norton said, adding that the city’s downtown now provides unique public spaces, which have sparked private investment, leading to the filling of once empty store fronts and new job opportunities. The city’s investment has also sparked the redevelopment of an adjacent neighborhood and the area also serves as trailhead to a 15-mile community trail that connects schools, neighborhoods and parks.

“The total public investment has been over $3.2 million, and the total private investment has been over $4 million. That is just in the creative district of our downtown,” Norton said. “Since 2014 in this area, we have had 26 new businesses and 149 job opportunities created. In 2019, we expect to have five new businesses open and around 40 new jobs created from those five new businesses.”
Implementing the community’s vision has been transformational for Downtown Thomasville.

Aylworth said Thomasville embodies downtown development in the 21st century.
“The pendulum has begun to swing away from what is considered conventional planning and development toward walkable downtowns and placemaking to augment downtown revitalization efforts and create the live, work, play concept of the original American downtown,” she said.

Ed McMahon, a senior fellow with the Urban Land Institute said downtowns are important because they’re the heart and soul of any community.

“Who wants to go to the strip center and hang out? People just go and buy what they want and leave, but people will go to the downtowns of America and they will hang out and they will come back,” he said. “That was our model of development in this country for about 300 years. We called it a ‘town.’”

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