POWDER SPRINGS — When walking through the downtown of Cobb County’s second smallest city, the feeling of transition is hard to miss. A gleaming, brand-new park and amphitheater anchors the area. Some of the city’s historic buildings are boarded up, while others bear signs announcing new businesses.
Mayor Al Thurman believes that, in time, the latter will replace the former. The City Council and downtown development authority is buying old properties to facilitate deals with entrepreneurs and offering incentives to real estate developers in hopes that the downtown will shed its sleepy reputation to become Cobb’s latest success story.
“Our downtown basically was just starting to deteriorate and die,” Thurman said, as he took the MDJ on a recent tour of the city. “And all the information from consultants was telling us that we needed density in the downtown. All of the restaurants who tried to start — maybe Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, they do all right. Early part of the week, they just couldn’t really survive down here. So, the density told us that people need to live in the downtown in order for businesses to do well in the downtown.”
Thurman first joined the City Council in 2002. In 2014, he defeated Chris Wizner to become Cobb County’s first Black mayor. He was reelected in 2018 without opposition. He hasn’t decided yet if he’ll run for a third term in 2022.
In June, the city sold 6.3 acres of property, including its city hall, to Atlanta-based developer Novare Group, for $3.5 million. Novare plans to bring 221 multi-family apartments and 5,000 square feet of commercial space to the property.
“The apartments appealed to the city in part because it’s a commercial type of development, versus residential, that has the homestead property (tax exemption),” according to City Manager Pam Connor.
Another mixed-use project is planned about a mile southwest of downtown, where Atlanta-based Selig Enterprises plans to build 348 apartments and renovate an existing 12,000-square-foot shopping center.
Thurman, who speaks about bringing more rooftops (residences) to the downtown, believes the city hall sale and other deals will help put Powder Springs on the map by bringing the customers needed to sustain businesses. If you build apartments, he believes, businesses will come. New restaurants, shops and a brewery are in the works, the mayor said.
“We were sitting on the most valuable properties in the downtown that was not paying us any taxes,” Thurman said.
Part of that effort is leveraging the Silver Comet Trail, which brings thousands of cyclists, joggers and walkers through the city. Powder Springs added new signage around the trail to promote nearby amenities in the city.
By having more residents in close proximity to Marietta Street, Powder Springs’ main drag, and surrounding blocks, the mayor hopes to create a lively economic center on par with Marietta Square or Smyrna Market Village. Thurman welcomes a comparison to former Smyrna Mayor Max Bacon, who undertook the rebirth of Smyrna’s downtown in the 1990s.
“He (Bacon) came and talked to our council, shared his dream and his vision, certainly was very helpful to show us that it could be done,” Thurman said. “We weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel. It was something he had already started and made it successful. So we believe that we could do it also.”
As was done previously in Kennesaw and Smyrna, Powder Springs in 2019 approved an open-container district, allowing patrons of businesses to stroll through the downtown streets with a drink in hand.
The council named the new, $4.1 million park, splash pad and amphitheater that anchors downtown Powder Springs “Thurman Springs Park,” after the mayor. It is already being regularly used for festivals and concerts.
Actions by the city such as the open container district and park will also help to boost the downtown, which currently is “pretty much a graveyard” after 5 p.m., Thurman said.
Part of the challenge with revitalizing local commerce is that Powder Springs is a bedroom community. Downtown businesses will hopefully provide more local jobs. The council recently approved a distribution center that will be built in the city, which is expected to bring about 200 new jobs.
“If you look at the live, work and play, we got the live, we got the play, we just need to bring the work,” Thurman said. “Because 70-80% of our people leave the city and go to work somewhere else.”
In addition to the new mixed-use developments planned, Thurman pointed out several historic buildings slated for renovation. Keeping the character of the downtown intact is important, he said, as most residents that move to Powder Springs are looking for a small town feel.
“We don’t want to lose that, we want to try to develop our city in such a way that it keeps that feel, people feel safe to raise their families, things of that nature,” Thurman said.
In her book “Images of America: Powder Springs,” Lauretta Hannon writes that in the 1850s, the city, then called Springville, was a busting resort town where people came for the medicinal mineral water found in the area’s seven springs.
“Over a period of 20 years, there were five hotels built in the village, and residents took in boarders to handle the overflow of tourists,” Hannon writes, noting the town changed its name to Powder Springs in 1859.
Some residents and council members have bristled at Thurman’s enthusiastic plans to add more density to the city, which now has a population of just under 17,000. But those forces seem less powerful in Powder Springs than say, Marietta or east Cobb. Thurman’s council colleagues have voted repeatedly to approve real estate deals, something Thurman said wouldn’t have happened in decades past.
“I get the fact that folks are afraid to change, but sometimes change can be good,” Thurman said. “And once we show them the type of development we’re bringing in, they seem to be pleased.”