By Kevin Hogencamp
Last fall, downtown restaurateurs Sarah Edmonds and B.J. Fletcher never imagined they’d be launching new businesses; they were plenty busy with their multiple ventures.
Nor could they have fathomed just how excited they are about the economic revival of downtown Albany.
My, what a difference a few months make.
On Tuesday, Edmonds, Fletcher and a handful of business associates unveiled a series of connected business ventures – featuring an upscale consignment shop, general store and fresh produce market – with the notion of bringing life and hope to the 100 block of North Washington Street, and all of downtown, for that matter.
The informally constituted consortium is turning three massive, vacant, historical, multi-story buildings into sprawling new businesses – each a tourist draw in its own right — that these visionaries hope will attract customers from far beyond Dougherty County.
Fletcher, who along with Edmonds co-owns Café 230 on West Broad Avenue, is the facilitator and sparkplug of the combined efforts. But Fletcher, who also operates Ole Times Country Buffet on Dawson Road, says she is only one of many spokes in the wheel – entrepreneurs and others, including Downtown Manager Aaron Blair — with various roles in the renewal project.
“Everything all of a sudden seemed to fall into place with the help of a lot of good people, especially Doc” – Dr. Bruce Peters, the landlord at 104, 106 and 110 North Washington. “Everyone has had the attitude of let’s make this happen instead of finding ways to keep it from happening.
“We are finding a way to not let anything stop us and turn things around in downtown Albany.”
That’s exactly Peters’ assessment.
“B.J. came to me and said, “what will it take to make this happen,’ and instead of me naming a price and sticking to it, and risking everything falling apart, we worked together, hand in hand, to make sure nothing got in the way,” he said.
Here’s what’s in store and who is involved:
§ At 104 N. Washington St. in the recently closed Economy Drugs spot, Fletcher will open Downtown General Store as early as next week. It will be furnished with antiques on consignment and will feature a fresh deli and many items that are found in convenience stores – including, eventually, lottery tickets. The store will include an ice cream shop and hot dog stand operated by Christopher Pike, an Albany City Commission member.
§ Next door, at 106 N. Washington St., Bruce Young is opening the Fresh Market, Young, of Lee County, has been selling produce in the community since he was nine; among his wholesale clients is Tommy Mac’s in Albany.
§ At 110 N. Washington St., in the former Churchwell’s spot, Sarah Edmonds is teaming up with Jessica Blair to open Verge, an upscale consignment shop that will featuring clothing initially, with furniture being added later. Jessica Blair is Aaron Blair’s wife. In the back of Verge, Edmonds and Jessica Blair will have a coffee shop that will open up into a back alley seating area for their customers.
The three-pronged project – which has some auxiliary ventures including a coffee shop and commercial office space leasing – is expected to be fully operational by early March.
“I am very excited about the new business coming in on North Washington,” Blair said. “Not only are they new businesses, but a group of individuals who want to make a positive impact. These businesses are bringing energy to an area of downtown that has been vacant for some time. I think it’s safe to say we have turned the corner. It’s a new beginning for downtown.”
For Edmonds, who also operates a hair salon, the endeavor is a step back in time. Her father operated Edmonds Floor Covering downtown for 55 years.
“Years of going downtown with her family is what sparked her to put her hard-earned money and time behind the project,” Fletcher said.
To add a philanthropic touch to the ambitious endeavor, Fletcher and her colleagues are working on a plan to start a nonprofit organization that the North Washington Street businesses can rally around to help families of critically ill children raise money. She says she got the inspiration last week upon seeing a television news report about a Houston child who has a hole in her heart and is in need of a prosthetic leg.
“There’s more to this than making money. It’s about making a difference in a community and in people’s lives,” Fletcher said. “This is something that all of Albany will support.”
Peters noted that a healthy downtown is a symbol of community pride and history.
“This is a hobby for me – being a part of a rebirth of an area where people are down on their luck. I am glad to be a part of it, but B.J. is the reason we are all in this,” he said.
Aaron Blair, who helped Fletcher and Peters “get on the same page,” says Fletcher’s leadership is a model that others could learn from and emulate. Meanwhile, though, he says that he expects several more businesses to open downtown in the next few months.
“Our focus is going to be on quality projects, and consistent marketing,” he said. “We are going to continue to attract strong businesses that want to be part of making a positive impact in the community.”
Noting that a healthy and vibrant downtown boosts the economic health and quality of life in a community, and creates jobs, Edmonds says she thinks the synergy that is developing downtown will spread rapidly.
“People say that they will come downtown if they have a reason to come, and we’re giving them a reason to come,” she said. “It’s very exciting to be a part of this.”
Just as Edmonds is paying homage to her family roots, Peters says an impetus for his involvement in the project is to honor his partner, Dr. Ray Lanier, whose father (founder of Lanier Oil Co.) was the first manager of the theatre downtown, and whose mother adored shopping downtown.
Edmonds and Jessica Blair, meanwhile, are accepting “gently used”, high-quality items – mostly women’s clothing – for consignment. They can be reached at 438-2121.