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Posted: October 27, 2012 5:25 p.m.

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Burgess: Social Circle is painting the town

From my Internet search, I learned that one possible origin of the idiom "Paint the Town Red" was from the practice of Romans soldiers back in their Empire days of painting the walls of their newly-conquered towns with the blood of the vanquished. I don't know whether this is true or not.

There is a parallel here, however. In Social Circle, we have painted the entire downtown, not red, but in a palette of colors designed to conquer the flight of shops and other businesses headed for the shopping malls and retail centers dotting the outskirts of our city or in nearby towns.

The decline of small towns across America is well documented and has been occurring under our very noses. The consolidation and mechanization of farms was a major contributing factor which resulted in a mass migration away from farms and rural areas to areas with job opportunities.

Population shifts, the decline of the farm economy, urbanization and suburbanization, the growth of big business and the fast food industry, and many other factors have dealt a devastating blow to the economic well-being of small towns, particularly downtown centers.

I personally once had a retail/owner experience in Social Circle. In the early 1980s, I opened a small variety store in the downtown area. I had always loved "10 cent" stores such S.S. Kresge's and Woolworth's. And of course, I wanted to have an entrepreneurial experience. My store opened with a fan fare of local enthusiasm but my initial euphoria didn't last very long.

A new Walmart in Monroe cut into my business, the lay-away business dried up and replenishing my inventory required purchasing dozens of items that local demand could not support. I also learned that upgrading or maintaining a historic storefront building can be cost prohibitive.

I did silk flower arrangements for funerals as a mainstay of my business; however, a sustainable business cannot rely on the unpredictable demise of our local citizens. It was a great experience, but it demonstrated the plight of small-town retail businesses.

Realizing that there is no "turning back the clock," Social Circle has fought the decline of its historic central downtown in a number of ways.

In 1998, the city applied for and was designated as a Better Hometown City which provided access to technical assistance from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs on downtown revitalization techniques designed to facilitate pedestrian traffic through increased business activity and community events.

The Social Circle Master Plan for Cherokee Road, prepared in 2009, outlined an approach for enhancing retail and business activities which included eliminating the downtown center median and re-positioning our signature well, widening sidewalks on both sides of the street to provide community gathering space, installing new light fixtures and landscaping, and constructing passageways through existing buildings to facilitate access to parking behind Cherokee Road buildings and shops. The funding of these improvements, however, would have to await the construction of the southern leg of the bypass around our city, which is just now about to begin.

Earlier this year, our city officials completed a strategic plan which would extend Social Circle's downtown development to the south, creating an entertainment venue, including an amphitheater, small parks, restaurant space and additional parking. Implementation of the plan would occur in three phases over a period of 10 years and Social Circle Mayor Hal Dally has emphasized that, rather than using borrowed money, financing of the plan will depend on grants in aid, in addition to planned savings from the city's regular budget.

Many of the activities undertaken by the city to revitalize its downtown have been for, but not with, our local businesses and property owners, and that's where the "Painting the Town" project is different.

"The downtown beautification project, ‘Paint the Town,' was designed to do several things beyond just making downtown beautiful," said Mike Owens, Better Hometown business development chairman. "These include building rapport and a sense of connectivity with the downtown merchants and building owners and seeding additional investments in building enhancements and improvements by building owners and merchants, where many (including myself) were sitting on the fence on whether to spend the money or not."

Mike Owens and BHTP manager Mike Miller used this opportunity to survey businesses and building owners on the types of businesses they would prefer in town and in their empty buildings. The survey collected information on square footage and prospective rental rates for buildings and generally any other concerns which were out there (many of which dated back decades).

The beautification project currently underway consists of two phases:
• Phase one which is about 90 percent complete, consists of painting the downtown facades in a color scheme developed by the University of Georgia and approved by the City Historic Preservation Commission which was designed to bring out historic architectural features.
Building owners and merchants were notified personally and given the opportunity to select color combinations from the approved palette. BHT Board representatives also used this opportunity to suggest other possible improvements. Jody Brown, a remarkable local painting contractor, agreed to work within budget to achieve amazing results.
• Phase two will include using empty building storefronts to post downtown development plans and drawings as well as promotional scenes for downtown development and strategic advertising sponsored by other downtown businesses.

Chairman Owens explained further that, "The Social Circle Downtown Development Authority provided a grant to Better Hometown to help fund the downtown facade improvements. In general, the facade improvements tended to be small and gradual. While the DDA grant was not enough to complete the entire painting project, it did serve as seed money to get the project started and secure additional investments by building owners."

"The ‘Paint the Town' project has served as an incentive for building owners and merchants to undertake additional improvements such as cleaning, painting, replacing signs and windows and generally taking a sense of pride in the downtown community and what it looks like to the outside world, Owens said.

"The anticipated results extend much further than the beautiful buildings and a more marketable downtown district. They also include a sense of shared enthusiasm by local merchants and building owners and pride in the beauty and potential of our downtown area. I'm hoping this is just a start to revitalizing our downtown district."

Madeline Burgess is an active volunteer in Social Circle and the wife of former Mayor Jim Burgess.

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