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Downtown Redevelopment Authority likely to use parts of '04 study

By Evan Belanger
evanb@decaturdaily.com 340-2442

An official with Decatur's fledgling Downtown Redevelopment Authority said the group likely will use portions of a three-year-old planning study in efforts to revitalize the downtown.

Released in February 2004, the 132-page study, entitled Envision Decatur, outlines developmental possibilities, including changes to downtown, the riverfront, West Moulton Street and Sixth Avenue.

Commissioned by the city and the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce, the study cost about $200,000.

"We're going to stick as closely as we can to it, but some of the things on there are very, very long term," said Rick Paler, DRA board chairman.

He said it would take hundreds of millions of dollars and 30 years or more to tackle everything proposed in the Envision Decatur study.

Through the efforts of the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Decatur-Morgan County Hospitality Association, a few of the Envision Decatur proposals are under way, including the building of Ingalls Harbor and work on Hospitality Park.

But little action has been taken on the study's downtown-redevelopment proposals.

Paler said the DRA will start by pushing for the fine arts department at Calhoun Community College to move its campus to downtown.

He said the change will create closer ties between Calhoun and Decatur, and be an economic stimulator. He predicts bookstores, restaurants and new apartments will follow the fine arts campus, if it becomes a reality.

"You bring in 300 or 400 students on a daily basis, it becomes a strong economic
driver," he said.

Specifics of the plan call for the campus to locate across from Princess Theater Center for the Performing Arts on Second Avenue Northeast.

Alabama two-year college system Chancellor Bradley Byrne is expected to discuss the DRA proposal during a visit to Calhoun on Tuesday. In January, Gov. Bob Riley said he would have a hard time justifying the estimated $30 million to $40 million project, when other state schools need repairs.

Other projects proposed by the DRA include providing incentives for developing downtown businesses, making it easier to develop downtown and improving pedestrian walkways.

According to Mayor Don Kyle, the City Council is likely to support the DRA endeavors.

"I think the door is wide open, and a good, dynamic, experienced director could really recruit and duplicate the successes of others," he said.

Setbacks

Formed in late 2004 and early 2005, the DRA suffered a setback last week, when a proposed candidate to direct DRA declined the job. Organizing a DRA and hiring a director are the first steps in the Envision Decatur study.

Paler said hiring a director remains a priority.

DRA has been searching for a director since May, when the Decatur City Council pledged $240,000 over three years to help get the group started. The money is to pay $80,000 a year for the director's salary.

Sources of funding

Paler says DRA will soon seek alternate sources of funding to help make hiring a director easier.

"If we have a more solid base of funding, other than just the city, when we do have a director or at least sit down with a potential candidate, we'll be in a much better position," he said.

So far, the DRA proposal calls for downtown revitalization by 2010. As of Monday, the group had no permanent, physical office and no employees.

Critics

Despite recent efforts, some local business owners predict failure for the latest redevelopment proposals.

Axel Hein has operated a downtown antique store for five years. A critic of the city government, he says the city's latest effort will never come to fruition.

Armed with news clippings dating back to 1983, he says Decatur officials have been "planning" for decades, but accomplished little.

"How many times can they envision Decatur?" he said. "They have been envisioning for 24 years and haven't done anything. The Bush administration is faster than that."

Rather than plan, Hein said, city officials need to recruit more small businesses downtown. He also says property owners should be forced to maintain their lots and buildings, and signage needs to be posted advertising the area.

Other problems noted by Hein include too little parking and cracking sidewalks.

"If you figure all the money they've spent to plan and study, they could have done all this by now," he said.

District 2 City Councilman David Bolding is the council liaison to DRA. He said Decatur does have a history of planning and not following through. He said that won't be the case this time.

The players

Downtown Redevelopment Authority members:

  • Rick Paler, chairman

  • John Thornton, vice chairman

  • Melissa Craig, secretary/treasurer

  • Carl Cole, Blake Temple, Terry Roche, Fred Underwood, Em Barron, Murphy Brown

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