Five years after receiving almost $2 million in “Livable Centers” grants through the Atlanta Regional Commission, Austell’s downtown remains a work in progress.
Improvements include a tree-lined median, brick-paver sidewalk enhancements and black metal light posts meant to add a classic feel of a small Southern town.
Aesthetically, it’s an upgrade from the old Austell. But economically, the progress is harder to see as hopes that new businesses would fill the vacant storefronts have yet to materialize.
Phase 1 that stretched along Veterans Memorial Highway from Jefferson Street to Thornton Road was finished three years ago. Phase 2, which finished at the end of last year, focused on Broad Street and Mulberry Street.
The project required $312,000 in matching funds from the city.
Mayor Joe Jerkins does not think the influx of money has helped stimulate the downtown area.
“I think it went pretty smooth,” said Jerkins, who spearheaded applying for the grant. “It has made the city look better. I don’t know if it has helped businesses.”
Jerkins said there are no future plans for large redevelopment projects by the city. Instead, he said he hopes property owners will make improvements to their buildings.
“I feel like a lot of them should have been torn down to sell the properties to someone who would build something new,” Jerkins said about many of the more than 100-year-old buildings.
Jerkins said the only restaurant in the area is Burger King, and there is nothing to draw a big crowd to the revamped blocks. The most stable businesses in Austell’s downtown are antique shops and drug stores, Jerkins added.
On April 19, Jerkins and other residents received a letter about another business leaving.
The only Bank of America branch in Austell, at 2765 Veterans Memorial Highway, across the railroad tracks from City Hall, will close its doors Aug. 2.
“This decision is driven primarily by a decline in transactions, as customers increasingly rely on other channels including mobile and online banking,” said Matthew Daily, a representative of Bank of America.
Cutting rental rates
Down the block from the bank, a 6,000-square-foot property at 5825 Mulberry St. has been unoccupied for the past six months.
The Suite A section was just leased to a dance studio, according to Doug Allen of Allen and Associates Realty. Allen said the space was previously rented by a survey and engineering company that vacated following the crash in the housing market. While housing sales have started to perk up in other areas of Cobb County during the past six months, no such resurgence has occurred in Austell.
“This is a very slow area,” said Allen, who opened his own real estate business two years ago, after working for large national firms.
Allen said most commercial properties in Austell have to be divided into little units for small-business tenants, such as local law firms and insurance companies.
Allen said he has cut rental rates by 50 percent over the last year and half, even on existing leases, in order to keep occupancy.
Allen said the city improvements encouraged some businesses to move from the city limits to the downtown area. But, he added, that just relocated the most economically depressed area of Austell to the perimeter.
Jerkins said there was not an effort to advertise Austell or rebrand the community with updates from the grant. His focus has been on keeping taxes low for residents hit hard by the recession.
“It is not an advantage for us to get bigger. I think staying small is the best way to go,” Jerkins said about Austell’s population of 6,581, according to the 2010 census.
Jerkins has fought to keep Austell a small town that still provides many services, instead of relying on Cobb County’s infrastructure.
In June 1999, under Jerkins’ direction, the City Council purchased 2 acres on Spring Street for $269,700 to lease to the U.S. Postal Service for $1 a year for the next 30 years.
“Keeping the post office in the city was important to me,” said Jerkins. “If you lost it, you were going to lose people coming into downtown.”
Decline after floods
Jerkins admits that Austell has “always been a low-income city,” but it worsened after Sweetwater Creek came out of its banks in 2009 and flooded area homes.
Jerkins said the city bought about 30 of the flooded homes and tore them down, but about 100 of the homes are still sitting empty.
Then, a declining national economy caused home owners in Austell to be “underwater” on their mortgages, according to Jerkins.
“People have walked off and left their houses,” Jerkins said, leading to a high foreclosure rate in the city.
Jerkins, 71, was elected in 1989. At the time, the city did not have the funds to hire a city manager, so Jerkins filled both roles for a few years.
After almost 25 years as mayor, and two and a half years left of this term, Jerkins is beginning to look at retirement.
The city named a road running behind city hall Joe Jerkins Boulevard to honor a leader who did not accept a salary for 14 years. Jerkins said he lived on investments in real estate.
Sitting in his office at the historic Threadmill complex, Jerkins said, “I care about the citizens. I was born 3 miles from here.”