Model For Montgomery: Redeveloping Downtown 2/3

Posted by Bryan Henry  -  bio | email

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Downtown Montgomery under construction.

Bob Donlon, the owner of Wintzell's Oyster House, believes he is on the ground floor of something special.

"We like downtown markets," said Donlon.

Does he ever. Donlon has what he considers the very best corner in downtown Montgomery, carving out space within the Renaissance Hotel and Spa.

"To me there's more potential here than downtown Mobile," Donlon said.

Dreamland Bar-B-Que owner Bob Parker followed the same recipe. So far, so good for Dreamland.

"Going well," said Parker.

It's the same kind of thinking people like Jeff Downes have taken. Downes worked for former Mayor Bobby Bright and now Mayor Todd Strange.

"You have to sometimes put public dollars in to create opportunities for the city to grow," said Deputy Mayor Downes.

Which is the very thing Emory Folmar wouldn't do. Folmar served as mayor for more than 20 years. For Folmar it came down to economics.

"You can't do that. You can't be all things to all people all the time," said Folmar.

Folmar, in fact, believes in some ways the beginning of rebuilding downtown started under his watch; he says he renovated the old train shed.

"40 years worth of junk in that place," said Folmar, now Commissioner of the ABC Board for Alabama.

He says he also brought in Embassy Suites and refurbished the old Frank Lew Building which by the way doesn't exist anymore. A parking garage is now in its place. Folmar also says he invested a little on the Alabama River.

"We cleaned it up and put in a dock," he said.

Yet there can be no doubt the momentum started under Bobby Bright and unlike Folmar;

"If we added it up all," Downes said.

Bright spent millions doing it using a combination of grants, very little money from the general fund but most of it borrowed money; $26 million paid for Riverwalk Stadium and $30 million helped RSA Chief Dr. David Bronner build the Renaissance Hotel.

"Without risk there can be no reward," said Downes.

But have former and current city leaders spent too much of your tax dollars, possibly putting the city on a financial edge? The city's financial officer says he would have figures by Monday on just how much debt Montgomery is carrying as a result of its investment in downtown.

"You don't make foolish financial chances," said Folmar.

Jeff Downes points to the fact the city has more than gotten its return on its investment. Private investors opened the Alleyway, the core of the entertainment district. Scores of loft apartments have been built with more on the way. Downes insists the city is in no way in financial trouble because of downtown.

"If you look at the downtown area, RSA.. Dr. Bronner and all the federal grants and private sector more than a billion dollars have been poured into downtown Montgomery in the last 15 or 20 years," said Downes.

And there's even more. Records show the Montgomery Biscuits are well ahead of schedule in paying the city back for the stadium. As of this week the team has turned over nearly $4 million dollars in rent since the Biscuits started playing ball 5 years ago.

"Well, I don't bat a .1000 all the time. If I can bat .333 that's a pretty good league of hits," said Folmar.

A pretty good batting average with a surprising admission from Emory Folmar.

"Maybe I wasn't as aggressive as I should or would have been but you can't do all things at once," Folmar said.

"There's no turning back," said Downes.

"It was a no-brainer for me," said Donlon.

No turning back which sits Bob Donlon just fine. The first Wintzell's restaurant opened in downtown Mobile in 1938. Donlon hopes this Wintzell's will be here 70 years as well in a thriving downtown Montgomery.

The downtown work continues. Early next year city leaders say a $5 million Alabama Department of Transportation grant will dramatically improve the lower Dexter Avenue area with new trees and a lighting package. There might be enough money left over to laid the groundwork for a light rail trolley up and down Dexter. The project should take the work up most of Dexter Avenue.

Also, a pedestrian bridge will go up in about 7 days that will connect the Intermodel Facility to the riverfront.

Click on the Downtown Master Plan to learn more about Montgomery's long range plans to change the face of downtown.  The plan includes photos.

Tune in to WSFA 12 News at six Monday night for the final part of Bryan Henry's series. We'll take you back to Greenville, South Carolina, which offered advice to Montgomery officials and introduce you to the man who started it all.

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