Community identity

Published 11:00 pm Friday, February 22, 2013

Downtown revitalization is focus of community progress

A community’s identity is defined by its downtown. Its history is etched on the walls and sidewalks, and its future ebbs and flows with the vibrancy of that downtown.

In Pike County, downtown revitalization is an oft-used phrase in both Troy and Brundidge, which business and community leaders are focused on the future and the growth of those downtowns.

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Jason Reeves remembers the trips to Elmore’s Drug Store with his grandfather.

“He would take me there to get something, a treat,” said Reeves, the Troy mayor. “It was downtown, on the same block as Byrd’s Drugs … and the old Rosenberg’s store had those old air-controlled canisters that shot up to the ceiling. I remember being fascinated by all that.”

By the time he was a young boy, U.S. 231 had found its way through Pike County – a welcome addition to the transportation infrastructure that offered the allure of high traffic counts and new development. “My adolescent years were some of the toughest for downtown Troy,” he said. “I can remember it at its lowest point, and now I get really excited when I pull up there and I can’t find a parking place.”

Sherr Qualls has seen those changes, as well. His family has operated Douglas Bros. Jewelers on the Square since 1871. Back in the day, he said, downtown was the epicenter of commerce for the community. “You either rode your horse and buggy to town or the train to town,” he said. “But you came downtown.”

A pair of hotels, a grocery store, department stores and specialty retailers were all downtown. The streets surrounding the square housed service shops and businesses.

Today, the Courthouse Square houses a mix business establishments – from a bank to law firms to real estate agencies – and speciality retailers, from jewlers to interior design to children’s clothing and beauty supplies.

The Pike County Chamber of Commerce’s Downtown Revitalization Committee – of which Qualls is a former chairman – is actively working to develop downtown residential areas, events and programs designed to bring people to the Square (such as tailgating events prior to Troy University home games) and working with the City of Troy to help create a historic district for the area.

A handful of residents – including Qualls and Reeves – have taken trips to Oxford, Miss., for ideas and inspiration, seeking to find out what a similarly sized university town has done to successfully capitalize on its downtown. “Their mayor told me 20 years ago you could fire a gun across the Square and not hit anybody at 5:30 p.m.,” Reeves said. Now, visitors circle for an hour in search of a parking spot.

“The Square is special to me,” Reeve said. “I’m fascinated the photo of the cover of Bill Rice’s book that shows the downtown from the skies. If you look, the downtown went out four or five blocks in every direction … and that’s what I want to see again.”

Reeves has been proactive in partnering with the Chamber committee and in working to develop downtown Troy. His vision includes a place where people are walking, talking, eating out … and place where young adults and professionals can live or come to socialize in the evenings.

Just a bit further south on U.S. 231 lies Brudndige, a smaller community but one with equal amounts of history and pride. In Brundidge, the identity of downtown “ebbs and flows,” said John R. Ramage, vice president of First National Bank.

Ramage’s family has operated the bank for generations (it was founded in 1904), and it is a cornerstone of the downtown area. “In the late 1990s, when we remodeled this place, we had to make a decision on where we were going,” he said. “It probably would have been cheaper to build a new bank, but it was important to us to stay downtown.”

So important that earlier this year, the bank completed an extensive renovation of its original building and opened to the public as a community meeting facility. The renovation also provided the opportunity to put much of the bank – and Brundidge’s – history on display for the community. “We’re very proud of our building on the corner,” he said.

But he’s equally as proud of the current revitalization of downtown Brundidge.

‘”Nearly every storefront is filled, and that’s good to see,” he said.

What started with the We Piddle Around Theatre has grown to include the addition of Studio 116 and new arts-centered focus for the community. “They’re doing things to bring people to downtown, to get them in their doors, and that’s important to be successful,” he said.

The Brundidge Business Association and City Council are working together to rebrand the community, long known as “Antiques City.”

“That worked for a while, but it’s not really applicable now,” he said. “The arts? Maybe that’s going to be our niche … and that’s good.”