A story two weeks ago on vacant buildings in downtown Jasper prompted a barrage of comments both online and at our Main Street office. There are several points we’d like to address:
Incorrect: Main Street has a lot of vacancies:
It is not true that Main Street has a lot of vacancies as many commenters assumed. Several people said things about it being mostly empty on some blocks but this is far from accurate.
Main Street spaces are actually mostly full, what was (and is) empty are three key corner buildings that give an impression of widespread vacancy, plus a few smaller places and the fairly large former Nan’s Hallmark.
One problem, however, that goes un-noticed is that if you look on the backstreets on either side of Main Street, there is a lot of space sitting idle. The sprawling former Sidebar/Sharp Mountain Grille has been empty for years. The adjacent gas station is also empty, as is the former Flying Sheep. Of additional concern is when the county ends their lease of the Old Federal Building, which served as an annex courthouse, that very large office building will be hard to fill.
Unlike Ellijay and Blue Ridge, we do not see a thriving business atmosphere on the side streets and back streets. Years ago when the Donut Shop on Stegall Drive dominated morning eats and when a bottling plant sat in the Sidebar site, you could see open doors from the Old Depot on the east running all the way down to Jasper Elementary on the west side of town.
Incorrect: All the businesses are moving to the four-lane
Take a drive over to Highway 515, there is no building boom going on over there (unfortunately). In fact the only construction is at the old KFC building. There hasn’t been a major groundbreaking on the four-lane since Walmart located there and you will notice that none of the out-parcels around it have attracted a business.
Other than the NAPA business and one insurance office, it’s hard to recall any businesses that moved out of downtown to be nearer the four-lane, since the big car dealers Jasper Jeep, Vernie Jones Ford and then Lawson Chevrolet relocated.
The idea that businesses in downtown are packing up specifically to go the four-lane is just not accurate.
Incorrect: The “Blue Building” has a large negative impact
While people routinely cite the “Blue Building” (former NAPA store) as a prime deterrent to commerce on Main Street, there is no proof that it actually affects any sales. When Main Street Clothing went out of business, the owner listed a variety of challenges; no where on the list did the color scheme of nearby buildings come into play, nor are we aware of any downtown merchant who cites the blue building as holding back robust growth.
Jasper’s downtown is attractive with the trees and lights, monument, wooden bridge and water park. There will always be calls for improvements in town ascetics, but this is not a critical issue.
Incorrect: The government needs to do something for downtown
When people say government needs to step in or lead the way with revitalizing downtown, it’s often hard for them to nail down exactly what action they want (even when the speaker is a government official).
Do we really want tax-dollars flowing into private buildings and do the owners want assistance? Two of the empty downtown buildings are owned by the brother of Jasper’s mayor. Imagine the uproar if you see development authorities going out on a limb to help fill those buildings or spruce them up as has been suggested. The “Blue Building” is owned by a bank, do we want government dictating to private property owners on appearance or using tax dollars to paint it (both of which have been suggested)?
At this point, we’d caution people making calls for use of government authorities or funds in downtown to keep in mind exactly what you are calling for. Grants to help a new business open is one thing, pouring money or forcing changes directly into the buildings is a more worrisome proposition.
Ultimately, we’d argue the fate of Main Street will hinge on private commerce and entrepreneurial spirit that is assisted by the traffic flow from our new courthouse and the clean, attractive streets.