When Ford Thigpen, chairman of the rebooted South Cobb Redevelopment Authority, strolls through Smyrna’s Market Village, he can’t help but think of the 1980s — a time when that city had lost its way amid the sprawl that was spreading like kudzu across the Atlanta suburbs.
But while Smyrna’s downtown is now an award-winning model of small-town revitalization, its central fountain, brick walkways and bustling cafés and taverns were tough for some to imagine back when George Michael’s “Faith” topped the Billboard charts.
Such transformations, Thigpen says, should be kept in mind as people now ponder the possibilities for hard-hit areas elsewhere in south Cobb.
“Today in the City of Smyrna along Atlanta Road, you have this tremendous mix of retail, commercial, office and residential,” he says. “This is what can happen with a redevelopment authority.”
But with apologies to a certain 1980s pop star, there is a preliminary requirement for any successful redevelopment push: You gotta have faith.
And in today’s economy, with development still at a relative standstill, faith can be hard to come by.
“The hurdle has been the economy,” concedes Thigpen, president of WestSide Bank. “There are a lot fewer developers available now, and they are looking for a way to strike your project, rather than to find a way to do it. I understand that, because banks are the same: You take a longer look at each project.”
Yet there are compelling reasons to try to kick-start growth in underserved parts of south Cobb, which is precisely why the formerly mothballed redevelopment authority was reinstated with new powers and purpose in October 2011, says Michael Hughes, the county’s economic development director.
The seven-member panel is tasked with making real progress in the county’s overarching strategy for three primary areas:Six Flags Drive,Mableton and the River Line. These areas happen to boast advantages that are a must for developers and employers in gridlocked metro Atlanta in 2013, Hughes says.
For example, they are minutes away from job hotspots such as Cumberland Mall/Cobb Galleria Center and downtown Atlanta (often with skyline views). And in addition to their easy access to I-285 and I-20, they offer proximity to both Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and Fulton County Airport-Brown Field.
And did we mention the land is cheap?
“This is an area that holds immense promise and opportunity,” Hughes says.
But potential deal-breakers are there, too. Attractive, quality housing and low-crime rates are big priorities for the employers and young professionals south Cobb would love to attract. But some of the low-occupancy apartment complexes along Six Flags Drive are rough areas. Officials have discussed a scenario in which the authority buys some of these blighted properties, razes them and then woo developers to rehab the sites. Other efforts center on helping Mableton win federal funds for a town square, and working to catalyze more development along Riverview Road.
But thus far the panel has mostly been gathering facts and asking questions, says Doug Stoner, the former state lawmaker whose bill rebooted the authority.
“What businesses generate jobs here, and what challenges do they face?” says the south Cobb native. “What businesses would we want to come here? What types of residential development? Do we need to look at our road networks? Our streetscapes? There are multiple layers to this.”
As Stoner sees it, the next step should be to ramp up community outreach. One suggestion would be to create an authority taskforce for this specific purpose, he adds.“You want people living in the area to be involved,” says Stoner, who has served on Smyrna’s downtown development authority for more than 20 years. “That’s what we did here in Smyrna, and still do … The thing about redevelopment and revitalization is, you don’t just do one thing and you’re done. It’s always a work in progress.”