DECATUR — Even before the city began its $14 million redevelopment project, downtown Decatur was showing signs of recovery.
Street-level occupancy is hovering about 90 percent. Its merchants appear to be playing well together and developing group activities designed to attract more visitors to the area.
Which begs the question: What real changes, if any, will all these improvements bring?
Major downtown stakeholders agree that those looking for a return to the good, old days of department stores and the addition of major-chain restaurants will be disappointed. Those businesses aren’t interested.
Instead, they say the focus will remain on building upon downtown’s strength as a regional destination for unique shops, restaurants and bars. And the improvements, which include new sidewalks, lighting and more parking, are sparking some interest.
Stephanie Ashe Brown, the city’s urban planner on the downtown project, said the economic development office already is fielding calls from people seeking information about downtown business opportunities.
One of the challenges, she said, will be finding new businesses that complement existing ones and won’t simply move a business to downtown from another part of the city.
“I think this is a great step forward,” downtown property/business owner Lea Stukins said of the streetscape improvements.
Despite the construction, a surprised Stukins said business at her restaurant, Coney McKane’s, is ahead of last year. She attributes a lot of it to people stopping in as they explore the work being done in the area.
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Stukins is hopeful that the exploring continues and people discover the host of businesses that await them in the process.
“There are so many people who have no idea what is on Merchant (Street),” Stukins said.
Merchants and others also agree that decreasing the speed of the traffic should make the downtown area less of a blur to motorists; changes in the traffic pattern and more parking will make downtown easier to navigate; and rerouting the truck traffic should make the area more pedestrian-friendly and outdoor dining a relaxing option.
In the end, it’s all about increasing foot traffic, they said. The more people who take advantage of downtown and what it has to offer, the more businesses will feel the need to locate there.
“You have to have the traffic,” developer Tony Romano said. “That will bring more opportunities.”
If the interest becomes so great, building owners will be more compelled to make costly improvements that would allow vacant upper levels of buildings to be used for commercial or residential ventures. There also is the prospect of new construction.
Main Place Properties, which owns or operates several buildings downtown, knows this scenario all too well.
The group is moving ahead with a planned residential project above Giggles and making exterior improvements to its building in the 200 block of South Main Street.
Meanwhile, Main Place manager Tim Raycraft said business interests are taking a wait-and-see approach to a project slated for the 100 block of South Main Street. Raycraft said preliminary plans call for a multibuilding complex with a courtyard that would take on the character and serve as a pedestrian extension of Merchant Street.
But, Main Place already is hedging its bets. They have torn down the buildings that were on the site, rather than make costly improvements and continue to rent them, until the timing for the new project is right.