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EDITORIAL: Gem of a place

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THAT ROME has a gem of a main street is hardly a secret, although it helps to have been in and around these parts 30 years ago to really appreciate it today.

Thus for Rome to have been designated by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs as among the real GEMS (Georgia Exceptional Main Street) for downtown revival and thus warranting even more and extra state assistance in taking this progress to the next level should come as no surprise.

Indeed, for Rome and the other cities so designated (Valdosta, Greensboro, Toccoa, Bainbridge), this amounts to a confirmation of both dedication to and duration of a revitalization effort.

To get to this level of added support — mostly extra technical assistance and priority treatment from the state — requires a city to have been part of the Georgia Main Street/Better Hometown program for 10 years, proven it has a stable leadership and been prompt in all required progress reports for at least three years.

What it receives under a three-year memorandum of understanding with the state (that is basically what used to be called a “gentleman’s agreement” rather than a contract) is added help in planning and working out kinks from the DCA for its next priorities.

In Rome’s case, those have been identified as increasing living/residential spaces in the many empty upper stories of Broad Street buildings and fixing up/reviving the Fifth Avenue look-alike to Broad Street just across the Oostanaula River.

AS REGARDS housing, Rome already has seen about 150 residential units appear downtown with a few more, even now, being added. It projects space for at least 100 more being available. As Ann Arnold, the Downtown Development director, observed: “We know that we need more housing. We know that there is a market, a demand, for it, but there are a lot of barriers, the primary one being money.”

This GEMS designation does not bring money, per se, but having feasibility studies done — and identifying which governmental rules create obstacles to clear away — make investments less risky, and that in turn makes money more available.

As for converting the couple of blocks of North Fifth Avenue into something more vital, the city’s mindset preference is for an “arts district” there. Not hard to understand the desire. Not only does Rome have a remarkably large and varied “arts community” for its size (probably due to the influence of having so many colleges), but it long has gotten red-headed stepchild treatment. Remember the original key element for the South Rome redevelopment of creating an “arts village?”

In some ways evoking “the arts” has often become a sales pitch to get citizens into a showroom selling other items.

DEPENDING on how “arts” are to be defined — a bluegrass performance center, a movie theater to show the oh-so-many artsy, award-winning movies that never make it here? — the problem with an arts district of galleries, studios and such is that they draw little traffic on their own. Any transformation has to be economically successful, the secret of Broad Street itself. Fifth Avenue already is “out of the way” and needs the ability to pull customers/dollars on its own.

This newspaper’s own vision for Fifth Avenue as an ideal “entertainment district” — well away from all those increasing permanent residents not fond of too-busy and noisy nighttime surroundings — is not incompatible with an “arts district.”

In any case, whatever happens there the starting point is obvious: Scrape off the asphalt and go back to the original red brick paving underneath, chop down the power poles to put in underground utilities and put in gas lamppost replicas. In other words, do it right instead of wrong as was done along South Broad Street.

Broad Street itself, mainly through hometown entrepreneurship, has thrived through the variety of what is offered built upon a base of government workers as a captive population. One has lunch and drops into the boutique next door or vice versa; one visits a professional service office and is somehow pulled into a bookstore or gift shop ... and so forth.

INDEED, WHEN city guiding lights ponder “what next?” — really not so much their decision as that of the folks with the money to follow their dreams without asking for more taxes — it might be an opportune moment to re-examine the overall vision as well.

“Downtown” indeed has much left to do but it has already come very, very far from the days before Streetscape, before its property owners agreed to tax themselves extra to jump-start a revival. Some 30 years ago what little remained of what had once been the primary dollar-generator for Rome was fading and soon to close. How many lived there then — a dozen folks perhaps? They rolled up the sidewalks at night and it was policed mostly to shoo the derelicts away.

What a turnaround it is that has indeed been achieved. More residential units are needed to meet demand just as, decades ago, those old dwelling units were emptied out by flight and different preferences.

Broad Street no longer needs to be “saved” but rather boosted toward maximum potential. It has already accomplished more than city fathers doubtless ever envisioned. Look around for blocks in every direction at all the “stuff” wanting to be close to the hub and main traffic crossroads and today serving thousands of customers who actually never have to drop by Broad Street itself in the process. Indeed, unless one happens to live here, Broad Street is actually difficult to find.

“DOWNTOWN” has been revived to the point that it has generated economic activity all around it ... but this is not much housing other than in the rather limited Between the Rivers Historic District. All those desired added residential units are needed because of proximity to where many desirable things are to be found. The “arts district” or an entertainment enhancement are needed because mankind does not live by food, drink and shopping alone but rather needs diversions and amusements that are actually in short supply — at least routinely and every day and night — in the city’s center.

Rome is fortunate in that it already has a gem of a downtown, its sparkle already visible although a bit of extra polishing never hurts.

With all that has already happened in an area now wider that just Broad itself, and is happening with new hotels and businesses and enterprises, this would seem to present an opportune moment for the community and its leadership to generate a public discussion of not how, as in decades past, to save the city center but rather how, in the decades now at our doorstep, to make all of central Rome all that it has the potential of becoming.

That sort of discussion is not only warranted but is also the consequence of what went on before in the heart of a downtown itself now but the central jewel in what has become a crown of accomplishment.