Practical matters and a vision of the future

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT UPDATE

Front elevation of Wallace State Campus Center academic building

Front elevation of Wallace State Campus Center academic building

An hour-long interview with Oneonta city manager Ed Lowe Monday focused first on practical matters such as status of activities already in progress, later graduating to future directions and meta-concepts of community development. First the practical side. Wallace State Campus Center construction update

The Wallace State Center academic building is planned for First Avenue in the south end of downtown, in the block across from the Oneonta Senior Center. Architects’ drawings are currently being finalized with construction expected to begin in September or October. Most construction firms large enough to handle the 18,000-square-foot building are busy on current projects, possibly delaying the start date a bit beyond what might normally be expected.

Preliminary floor plan of 18,000-square-foot Wallace State academic building

Preliminary floor plan of 18,000-square-foot Wallace State academic building

The finished building will provide two laboratories and six classrooms along with offices for Wallace State, meeting the space requirements for accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Space is sufficient to serve a student population of 500 to 700 under full usage, including night classes. It will also contain office space and a conference/ training room for the city of Oneonta and economic development use.

The projected move-in date is fall of 2018. Technical and workforce development classes will continue to be taught at the existing Wallace State site on Ala 75 north, adjacent to Pizza Hut. Economic update work session coming

The city of Oneonta has scheduled its mid-year economic work session for Tuesday, June 27, following the regular 5:30 p.m. council meeting. The session is intended to update citizens on city economic trends and financial status. Sneak preview highlights, according to Lowe: sales tax proceeds have ticked upward and building permits are a little above predicted levels, as are business licenses issued. Those indicators appear to be having an energizing effect on the overall economy, Lowe said.

Lowe said calls to the city from people interested in development opportunities, both for redevelopment and new construction, are increasing. He said calls include a healthy mix of local businesses and individuals, as well as out of town chains. He cautiously predicted three more new restaurants in the foreseeable future, saying it is too soon to speculate about what those might be.

Asked about two development properties being marketed by the city – the 10- acre tract on Ala 75 south across from Jack’s and the 100-acre tract on Ala 75 north across from Walmart – Lowe said calls have picked up on both sites. “We’ve had more discussion on both sites in the last nine months than ever before,” Lowe said. “Our goal is job creation and revenue generation, but calls so far have not hit the target for what we’re looking for in the way of ideal developments for the sites.”

He said the smaller site is ideal for a large, specialty retailer, while the larger one lends itself to a mixed retail development combining shopping, food, and entertainment that would become a stand-alone destination for the 30,000- plus customers in the market area for the site. Understanding the time lapse

“What’s hard to get across to people is that doing community development is not like chopping firewood. You work and work and work and at the end of the day, you don’t have a stock of firewood to show for it.” He said when the payoff comes and a new business opens its doors, it may look like it happened overnight, but the reality is that it may have taken two or three years of negotiation, preparation, and various kinds of problem-solving to bring it to fruition.

Lowe said that to make community development work, it takes the city, financial organizations that are willing and ready to provide financing for projects, and motivated developers all working together to get a major project going.

“Two years ago, we just had the city. We couldn’t get financial comparables to support proposals, and we didn’t have interested developers. I don’t know exactly how to express it, but now we’ve got the components. We’re so far ahead of where we were, but it still takes awhile to get major projects completed. I guess I’d say I now have more confidence in the city’s ability to attract developers to local opportunities – both local people who are interested, as well as those from out of town.”

“As the city, our responsibility is to create the atmosphere for economic and community development. It’s citizens who have to have the confidence and energy to invest the time and money in development projects. So I’ll say this to those folks: If you’ve got an idea, come and see me. We’re open to anything we can do to help you develop any idea you’ve got to make the community better.” The vision thing

This is Lowe’s waking dream. Extend First Avenue two blocks southward to B Street, and zone it 3B – the same as downtown – and open it to new construction, creating a six-block-long downtown corridor, with a mix of redevelopment and new development projects. Create an upscale, covered produce market at the north end of the corridor, north of the gazebo. Encourage the growth of that six-block-long corridor, emphasizing the village concept, where people can shop, live in lofts above stores or in other housing, have entertainment readily at hand, with fresh produce and perhaps a neighborhood market. Adapt the village concept re-introduced by upscale developments in Trussville and Shelby County – developments like Greystone and others – except with a small-town twist here, incorporating the real downtown village atmosphere that already exists, making it even more authentic than those “brand-new” villages. “I think there’s an opportunity to do something really unique in community development and community living here,” Lowe said, concluding his brief, somewhat speculative journey with a flourish.