City tries to foster business growth on S. Blvd.

Posted by Bryan Henry  -  bio | email

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - What is it about the Southern Boulevard that seems to have a run-down look and feel? It's not hard to answer the question. Boarded up stores including parts of Montgomery Mall, which is only a shell of its former glory, line the boulevard.

"This is home," says Robert Smith.

Smith runs a business at the corner of the Southern Boulevard and Norman Bridge Road. He says he's been able to make a decent living, no regrets in staying, but vehemently believes the city could do so much more to straighten out what he considers a mess along the boulevard.

"If the city could beautify the area and make it look more promising," said Smith.

A couple of miles away Peter Kook doesn't necessarily have such a cloudy view of the bypass. He just opened up a new business, Boost Mobile, and claims business couldn't be better, so much so Kook plans to open up two more locations in Montgomery.

"We picked this location because it's convenient. It's right off the main bypass," said Kook.

Two contrasting views of the bypass yet regardless of who you talk to, you cannot deny the existence of vacant buildings, and not just small ones either. In addition to Montgomery Mall, you also have what used to be K-Mart.

Montgomery's Deputy Mayor Jeff Downes says change is coming but: "These changes don't happen overnight," he explained.

To illustrate that point, a year ago the Alabama legislature passed what's known as the I-65 Corridor Incentives Package. In short, the package offers property and tax abatements to businesses that will make a substantial commitment anywhere from Interstate 65 to Montgomery Mall.

"Generally you would need to put a million dollars in capital and create 20 jobs," said Downes.

So why aren't shoppers seeing any results? "You have to look at it in the context of this. These incentives were passed in arguably the worst economic time in our lifetime. Those entrepreneurs don't have the capital right now," Downes said.

"I've been able to hang on," said Smith.

That seems to be the case of the bypass.. hanging on. There are visible signs the city has at least taken steps to clean up the area. Crepe Myrtles were planted in the median and the state just put down a fresh coat of asphalt on one of the service roads.

"We're trying to recover from the negatives," said Downes.

Mayor Todd Strange has also placed a police substation along the boulevard. An investment worth around $100,000. It's a beginning, but it's far from a total restoration.

All the more reason why getting new tenants in Montgomery Mall is critical to moving forward. The mall is owned by Blue Ridge Capital.

"We are in negotiations. Some have stepped up the table, others have not just yet," said Downes.

In other words, there's no announcement yet on the mall's new tenants, but the idea of turning it into a medical mall is gaining momentum. It's the in-thing now in other cities.

"Jackson, Mississippi, and Baltimore, Maryland, have examples of turning old malls into medical malls with great success," Downes said.

While the city hopes to perform that medical miracle with Montgomery Mall, you cannot mention the Southern Boulevard without mentioning Baptist Health and Alfa. Both have expanded over the years and both have chosen to stay. Alfa's been on the bypass since 1959.

"Alfa has always felt a part of this community and we don't think we've given up anything by staying here," said Communications Director Jeff Helms.

Back to Peter Kook and Robert Smith. Smith says he plans to hang in there while Kook is confident he's made the right decision to locate on the Southern Boulevard.

"Compared to other stores in Mobile and Huntsville this one is doing very well," said Kook.

"This is my area. I've a native," said Smith.

The Southern Boulevard, open for business even though for now it's future looks a little fuzzy.

Despite what the bypass looks like now, one more reason why the city feels there's a great deal of potential. It comes down to one important number. Some 35,000 vehicles travel the bypass every single day.

Downes says the city is in negotiations with a grocery store chain to move into what used to be the Food World store on the boulevard.

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