Written by Betty Rehberg
Downtown Albany was once a place to be proud of. It was the very heart of Albany for many decades. It was once a bustling, busy place filled with shops, theaters, and so much more. People from all over South Georgia flocked to Albany’s downtown. One could literally spend all day and half the night downtown, there was so much to see and do. It was safe; mothers could drop their children off at one of the many movie theaters and not have to worry about the children’s wellbeing while they shopped. All of the big “anchor” stores as well as many small locally-owned shops were located downtown. Everything started to change sometime during in the 1970’s.
Downtown Albany went downhill fast as those same big stores, followed closely by most of the smaller shops, either closed up and went out of business or moved elsewhere. The theaters all left as did most of the bakeries and restaurants. Doctors and dentists moved out too. It was like the domino effect, if one business failed or moved, two more would soon leave. For many years most of the old buildings were deserted and boarded up and many more were being torn down. Maybe it was the new mall, maybe the need for more parking, or a combination of the two; no one is really sure, but downtown Albany pretty much died.
The Albany Dougherty Economic Development Commission recently hired the consulting firm of Janus Economics to conduct a study on how to make a better town. The consulting firm made its recommendations based on what it saw as the strengths and weaknesses within Albany. The firm concluded that all successful towns have strong downtowns. It stressed the importance of building up Albany’s blighted downtown areas to make Albany a better city overall.
To better understand what is needed to improve downtown Albany it is necessary to look at other towns that have strong downtown areas. Thomasville, Georgia, has a population of less than 18,500, compared to the population of Albany which is approximately 77,500, yet Thomasville has a booming and vibrant downtown. Downtown Thomasville actually has a slightly larger downtown area than does Albany, even though Albany is a bigger city. Thomasville has one advantage that the larger city of Albany does not have in the very fact that it is smaller and, thus, there is less need for expansion into the suburbs. Despite the difference in population, many of the factors that make Thomasville’s downtown appealing also apply to larger cites like Savannah.
Thomasville never allowed a mall to open there, whereas the Albany Mall opened here in 1976 and was thought to be one reason Albany’s downtown took a turn for the worse. Thomasville does have many separate shopping centers which do not seem to have negatively impacted their downtown area at all. There are few vacant lots within downtown Thomasville, yet despite so many businesses and such a busy atmosphere, parking is not a problem. Albany built two public parking decks, as inadequate parking was also thought to have hurt downtown Albany. Yet Albany has not seen much increase in shoppers since the parking decks were completed. Thomasville is planning a parking deck as well.
Looking at the city of Thomasville, one might think income was a factor in the town’s success. However, the median income in Albany is only a few hundred dollars less in difference. Thomasville looks more affluent, but the median incomes of both towns are virtually the same. There are differences in the types of businesses the two towns offer downtown. Thomasville has a wider variety of upscale shops, restaurants, and museums as well as office space. Albany’s downtown currently offers less choice and variety, though there is plenty of room for more in the future. There are few unused buildings in Thomasville and none of the unused buildings are boarded up.
Most studies show that another factor in a strong downtown is having more people who live in the downtown area. Albany only has a handful of apartments currently for use downtown. Thomasville has fully restored a large historic building and is offering condos for sale. There are other spaces also being lived in above some of the shops. Albany, through the Albany-Dougherty Inner City Authority, is now in the process of restoring the old Albany Theater on Jackson Street. The lower floor arcade will once again be open for small shops while the main part of the old theater will be divided into four loft-style condos. This is one small step in getting more people living downtown.
Albany has many boarded-up buildings that have not been in use in decades. There has been some change recently. Many of these buildings are being made useable once again. Several new shops and restaurants have opened in the last few months. Most of these businesses are not open at night and some are only open for business a few days a week. Downtown Albany, like many towns its size, could be mistaken for a ghost town some nights and on weekends. On the other hand, Thomasville’s downtown is as busy at night and on weekends as on weekdays, perhaps even busier. Again this could be due to the smaller town’s lack of sprawl.
One reason for its success is tourism. Thomasville has many tourist-related events and festivals that bring in a lot of new people, people who spend money in the many antique shops, eateries, and art galleries. Albany does have a few festivals and they do very well but without more businesses open at more hours, the few tourists who come have nowhere to shop in the downtown area itself.
What some might recognize as charm is another reason for the success of Thomasville. It does not take an expert to recognize the historic beauty of Thomasville. The buildings are either carefully restored or they were never left abandoned and were always well maintained. Little details like ornate benches, decorative balconies, and open courtyards filled with plants make Thomasville an aesthetically pleasing sight. Albany paved over all of the old original hundred year-old brick roads with the exception of one block near the old train station. Thomasville, like Savannah, Charleston and many other historic cities, kept its brick streets. It is one more appealing feature to tourists.
Another thing Thomasville did that helped maintain the aesthetics, was, when an older building had to come down, it was replaced by a new building with the same style and character. It’s important to keep the historic flavor when building new structures within any downtown. This has been something Albany’s leaders and planners have ignored in the past.
Crime can also play a part in the success or failure downtown. Albany has a much higher crime rate overall than Thomasville. Downtown Albany actually has a lower crime rate than the remainder of Albany, yet people still perceive downtown in particular to be a higher crime area. It can be difficult to change that perception. There is a higher police presence downtown in part because the police station is located downtown.
Aaron Blair is Albany’s Downtown Manager. Blair has a degree in urban design from the University of Cincinnati. He has been working hard with business and property owners here to revive downtown Albany. When asked his opinion of what was the most important issue to make a successful downtown, Blair replied, “Successful urban design.” Blair continued, “Your most successful shopping areas mimic the design of a downtown. The urban fabric of a downtown is very vital, proper relationships of the width of the street vs. the building heights. When most of the urban fabric has been destroyed the only way to be successful is to recreate it, keeping all historic properties in mind.”
When asked about the differences in the downtown here in Albany and that of Thomasville, Blair responded, “The citizens of Thomasville are behind their downtown. We need to continue to gain our citizens back in full support. We need to make good, sound decisions and make sure only the best is the norm for Albany.” He continued, “We can turn it around, but it’s going to be up to the people who have turned their back on downtown to stand up for it again.”
When asked why it is so important for any town to have a strong downtown, Blair said, “Downtown is the back bone of every region. Without it a city will die. Suburban sprawl will not and cannot sustain a region. Sprawl is doing just that, sprawling and leaving older suburban style developments in disrepair behind. These areas will continue to decline.”
Albany’s downtown area has made a start on the road to recovery. More and more buildings that have been closed up for decades are being opened up again. We now offer more art shows and music venues downtown than in the past. Tourism is vital to downtown. Albany has the Riverquarium and Turtle Grove Play Park to attract visitors. The Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) has brought us the bike races that coincide with the marathon and Albany’s own version of Mardi Gras.
It will take a lot of teamwork and private investment, as well as historic restoration, to make the big changes that are needed. Misconceptions about downtown may need to be altered as well to bring people and interest back. Albany has lost a lot of historic structures over the years. They are long gone but what buildings do remain can be saved. Albany’s downtown is slowly coming back to life a day at a time.
Downtown Improvement is Key, By Sharinda Williams
Perception is, Downtown Albany Unsafe, By Jennifer Emert
Albany Dougherty Economic Development Commission
Historic Thomasville Georgia
Discover Albany Georgia (CVB)
Aaron Blair, Albany Downtown Manager
Wendy Bellacomo, Formerly with the Albany CVB, Currently with the Flint Riverquarium