Once a Victorian resort town known for its restorative waters, Powder Springs is struggling.
A bookstore, consignment shop and florist anchor the downtown, while many of the red brick storefronts stand empty. New restaurants come and go. The Country Store of Seven Springs, housed in a white clapboard building believed to date back to the presidency of Andrew Jackson, has been closed since 2012, its iconic Coca-Cola advertisement slowly fading in the Georgia sun.
“I love Powder Springs,” said Mayor Al Thurman. “I love the quaintness. But the fact of the matter is, if we don’t change with time, we’re really going to be left behind.”
The city, led by the mayor and a revived downtown development authority, is spearheading an ambitious new project officials hope can emulate the successes of Woodstock, Suwanee and Duluth — small and medium-sized cities that were able to inject new life into their downtowns by investing in greenspace and denser housing, and by courting specific businesses.
But some worry the small town is taking on too much debt in its efforts to revitalize. With a budget of about $8 million, Powder Springs, population 15,000, still owes $6 million for previous renovation projects, including the Seven Springs Museum dedicated to the town’s history.
“I have a lot of concerns about it, where they’re getting the money,” said Powder Springs resident Kim Boettcher, who works as a secretary in the nursing department of Wellstar Cobb Hospital.
On top of that, Mayor Thurman has called for a property tax hike, which he ties to increasing services, not the downtown efforts. He says the city needs to make up for economic hits it took during the 2008 recession and the flood that devastated the town shortly thereafter.
Last year, the development authority bought and renovated several properties downtown for $840,000 and are in the process of wooing desirable tenants with a year of free rent. The city purchased an additional property for $1 million.
Then, Powder Springs City Council agreed to take on an additional $4.2 million in debt to fund a downtown park connecting directly to the Silver Comet Trail, the 62-mile paved path that stretches from Smyrna to Alabama and attracts more than a million visitors a year.
The idea is to position Powder Springs as the preferred trailhead for the Silver Comet while also luring in businesses of the type that will attract tourists and encourage residents to spend more time and money downtown.
Powder Springs is not alone in this thinking.
“Many of our communities are seeing that they would like to connect directly to the trail because it does give them the opportunity to bring people into their downtowns,” said Julianne Meadows, director of regional planning at the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission, which did an economic analysis of the Silver Comet Trail in 2013.
According to that study, which has not been updated, the trail generates $118 million throughout the state each year, supporting 1,300 jobs and $37 million in earnings. It also noted a positive effect on surrounding property values, as well as an unmet demand along the trail for food and apparel.
Councilwoman Nancy Farmer was the only one to vote against issuing the bonds to fund the park. She worries about the potential impact to seniors like herself living on fixed incomes.
“I feel like the city doesn’t have the money to implement the park plan,” said Farmer. “It’s a big risk to invest with the promise that it’s going to generate money and we may not get the results.”
But Heath Houston, owner of Pillar Creative, a digital marketing firm in downtown Powder Springs, said the investment is necessary to attract new business and diversify the tax base, which is heavily dependent on residential property taxes.
In the past, Powder Springs “had a reputation for not being business friendly at all,” he said.
If the city has wasted money, Houston continued, it was on the “pointless” renovation of the historic Bodiford house for the Seven Springs Museum, a pet project of the same elderly set that makes up the bulk of the opposition to the city’s current plans and has been vocal about the city’s debt.
Thurman said he understands concerns about taking on debt.
But he said he’s been assured by the city’s financial planners that improvements will not pose a threat to Powder Spring’s fiscal health. He hopes bringing in new businesses will ease some of the burden on taxpayers and make the city more resilient to economic downturns.
“We’ve seen it done in other cities,” Thurman said. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel.”
Across Georgia and particularly in the metro area, small towns have invested in their downtowns with trails and walkable developments aimed at luring new business. They include Smyrna, Woodstock, Duluth, Norcross, Oakhurst Village, Kennesaw, Roswell, Alpharetta, Snellville, Lawrenceville and Hampton.
Ellen Dunham-Jones is the director of the urban design program at Georgia Tech and author of “Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs.”
“The suburbs are a particularly ripe market for live, work, play environments precisely because they tend not to have much of it to offer,” she wrote in an email.
She said many aging suburbanites find the privacy they loved while raising families can feel lonely once their children have left and they enter retirement. These residents are looking for low maintenance housing close to activity centers that allow them to remain in their same communities with their friends and doctors.
“At the same time, young professionals tend to be very attracted to a more walkable, mixed-use lifestyle,” Dunham-Jones said. “They, too, form a considerable part of the market for revitalized small downtowns.”
Suwanee in Gwinnett County is widely credit as the vanguard of this trend.
In the early 2000s, Suwanee bought about two dozen acres of land on one corner of Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road and Buford Highway. Ten acres were portioned off to create Suwanee Town Center Park. The rest was sold to private developers willing to go along with the city’s vision of building mixed-use offerings surrounding it.
But unlike Powder Springs, money wasn’t an issue in Suwanee. Voters approved a referendum to issue bonds that partly paid for the project.
Jared Lombard, who manages the Livable Centers Initiative program at the Atlanta Regional Commission, cautioned that downtown revitalization is a long-term investment, and municipalities shouldn’t expect to see returns immediately.
“Woodstock and Suwanee really lucked out because they timed the market perfectly,” Lombard said. Duluth eventually saw success, he said, but the recession slowed down its progress.
“It’s a patient process,” he said. “It’s not an overnight success.”
—Tyler Estep and Arielle Kass contributed to this story.
Small cities all over metro Atlanta are looking to revitalize their downtowns and attract new residents and businesses. Here are some places where public investment has spurred growth:
• SUWANEE created its Town Center Park using about $5 million from a $17 million voter-approved park bond issuance. The city then sold adjacent land to developers for a planned mixed-use complex.
• WOODSTOCK has invested between $8 and $10 million in its downtown to expand parking, build an amphitheater and establish a grid street network. The city also changed its zoning laws to allow more residential development and some light manufacturing — think breweries and woodworkers.
• ALPHARETTA is in the beginning stages of a large scale greenspace project modeled on Atlanta’s Beltline called the Alpha Loop. It will cost as much as $42 million and connect downtown to Avalon.
• DULUTH built its $9 million town green in 2000, but the true revitalization of its downtown has come in waves, including a new, $13.5 million City Hall building and another $3 million for Parson’s Alley, a restaurant and retail district.