Decatur has opportunity to energize downtown
Years ago, Savannah, Ga., leaders almost panicked when a group of visionaries decided to launch a private, non-profit upscale arts college in the downtown district.
Never mind that the downtown consisted of decaying storefronts and empty streets, the people who ran the Southern sea coast city thought a college would mean devastation to what little business was still being transacted.
The Savannah College of Art and Design, though, is the city's savior, with students from all 50 states and 80 countries who can choose from 69 degree programs.
SCAD began buying old buildings, renovating them and filling them with people.
At first, the change caused a trickle of new commerce; but as SCAD continued to buy and restore buildings and enrollment grew, downtown bloomed like the city's azaleas in spring.
To say that Savannah is hot today is to talk about more than the oppressive summer weather. The best seller and movie, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," brings tourists to Savannah, but SCAD's leadership in transforming downtown glues them there and supplies the day-to-day dollars that keep shops and restaurants in business.
The college has no traditional campus. The historic downtown and Victorian districts are its domain, with some 60 buildings located around the tree-lined squares, where students and faculty scurry to class and to work.
SCAD bought its first building in 1979 when the historic 1892 Savannah Volunteer Guard Armory became the first classrooms and administration building.
Could the same integration of higher education and commerce happen in downtown Decatur?
We have a similar mixture of assets and liabilities as Savannah had when its transformation began.
Start with a decaying downtown that needs to attract more people. Add the vacant Union Planters Bank high rise. Consider the possibility that the Central Baptist Church complex will be vacant.
Also, don't forget that both cities are located on important rivers. And that we both have colleges.
Calhoun Community College is raising $3 million as part of a $44 million capital projects program. But the Limestone campus has a land shortage problem that could be alleviated if it adopted the SCAD philosophy and looked to downtown.
Already with a Huntsville campus, taking over some of the downtown Decatur buildings wouldn't be a break with Calhoun tradition.
Calhoun is looking for a closer relationship with Decatur. Decatur wants and needs to be identified more closely with Calhoun.
Let's hear some serious talk about including these buildings as part of Calhoun's campus. Calhoun is offering to name its new Health Sciences or Math-Sciences buildings for anyone willing to donate $1 million to its foundation.
Perhaps, the city might consider offering a similar amount to get Calhoun to move some of its programs to downtown as the college grows.
Calhoun can profit from having three campuses and Decatur can use the energy and sophistication that goes with an academic setting to help remake downtown.