By David Shivers
Aaron Blair’s mission in Albany stems from the impression he got when he arrived here for his job interview with the Albany Dougherty Inner City Authority (ADICA): “I saw a city with so much potential.”
Blair, a recent arrival in Albany charged with leading the effort for downtown revitalization, reviewed tasks that have been accomplished and previewed future challenges in remarks to the Kiwanis Club of Dougherty County on June 13. He expressed appreciation for the warm welcome he and his family have received since their move from Naples, Fla., where he served as county architect for Collier County on the Gulf Coast.
The biggest adjustment, he explained, has been his two young daughters’ footwear, which in Florida consisted primarily of flip-flops.
Turning serious, Blair said the first thing that had to be tackled was the negative perception a lot of people have of downtown Albany, particularly the crime situation. Statistics have demonstrated that downtown is actually one of the safest areas in the city.
The issue affects more than just Albany, Blair believes. “Without a vibrant downtown, the region won’t survive,” he said, adding, “We need to let people know we’re here to change downtown.”
Blair outlined steps that have been taken to bolster downtown’s image, including changing banners, creation of a new logo, and the addition of night-time events and the weekend farmers’ market.
“We’ve developed a family of people downtown,” Blair stated. He pointed to a current success story, the block of Washington Street where upscale consignment store Verge (in which Blair’s wife is a partner), the General Store, and the Fresh Market have all recently opened.
When he first came here, said Blair, that block contained run-down, boarded-up storefronts.
“Now, it’s one of the busiest parts of downtown,” Blair said, adding that from a starting point of 59 retail vacancies downtown, he and ADICA set a goal of increasing occupancy by 25 percent, or 13 new businesses, in the first year. Since January, he revealed, 10 new businesses have opened.
“Visually, we want to be the nicest part of the city,” Blair told the Kiwanians. The goal is to make people want to come downtown, to make it so interesting they’ll want to come to see what’s going on, even people who have sworn to avoid the downtown area.
Another objective is to return any properties owned by ADICA to the tax rolls where they can again generate revenue for the public and private sectors.
Among future efforts revealed by Blair: creation of a loft diversion program for downtown living, improving gateways to the downtown area (the first impression people receive of Albany’s central business district), and upgrading property on the east side of the Flint River, such as where ADICA owns the skate park facility. Blair also said ADICA would be moving to discontinue its low-interest façade improvement loan program to avoid duplication of services with the city’s economic development agency, which he said was better equipped to meet such requests.