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Downtown South: Glory days

Photo courtesy Bradenton Area CVB

Downtown is back, and for proof, you need look no further than the big cities and small towns of the American South.

Like many places all over the country, Southern destinations saw their downtown districts fade from prominent centers of business and recreation into undervisited, underappreciated neighborhoods in the middle of the 20th century. As the suburban shopping mall became the new retail hub and social gathering place of Americans, historic downtown districts were all but forgotten.

Today, though, the trend has reversed. As developers and civic organizations have set about to revitalize their downtowns, they have created a vibrant new energy in historic business districts, bringing unique art, dining, retail and attractions back into the heart of town.

Revitalized downtowns are now some of the biggest attractions in Southern cities. Spend some time in one of these exciting cities on your next group tour through the South.

Little Rock, Ark.
Not too long ago, downtown Little Rock was a mostly abandoned industrial district. But the announcement of one high-profile construction project helped to kick-start one of the South’s most amazing revitalizations.

Courtesy Little Rock CVB

“Twelve years ago, our downtown was an abandoned warehouse district,” said Gretchen Hall, director of merchandising and communications for the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau. “But that has changed, and a huge part of that change was that President Clinton announced that he was going to put his presidential library in Little Rock.

“Once that location was announced, lots of development was planned around that. Since it opened in 2004, more than $2 billion in development has been dropped into downtown.”

The result of all that investment is a downtown that is lively, inviting and full of activities for visitors. The area known as the River Market District stretches along the banks of the Arkansas River from the Clinton Presidential Center to the Old Statehouse Museum, following the banks of the Arkansas River.

The district is full of local restaurants, new hotels and other attractions. Many groups enjoy spending an afternoon in Market Hall, an old-fashioned market where 15 vendors sell all kinds of food from Mexican and Middle Eastern cuisine to hamburgers. From there, they can visit a variety of other shops or cultural institutions.

“You’ve got the presidential library that you don’t want to miss,” Hall said. “There are also three additional museums downtown. There’s a wonderful nature center that is new. And Heifer International just opened a new global village downtown, which is a hands-on facility where people can go in and learn about what Heifer does and how they’re working to end world hunger.”

Tuscumbia, Ala.
Tuscumbia’s long, proud history dates back to 1815, when European settlers first arrived in the area and were greeted by the Chickasaw chief Tuscumbia. The city boasts some of the earliest commercial buildings in the state, as well as some concerned citizens who have invested heavily in maintaining them.

“Our restoration began a few years ago when Harvey Robbins, a local businessman, wanted to reinvest in his hometown,” said Ninon Parker, director of marketing for the Colbert County Convention and Tourism Bureau. “He was concerned about the old drugstore that was deteriorating. He bought it, restored it and put back in the nostalgic soda fountain. So today, they have the old stools and old counter, and they serve his favorite chocolate milkshake.”

The drugstore was the first of several such projects for Robbins, who also revitalized buildings that are now being used as a restaurant, a coffee shop, a bookstore and a number of clothing boutiques. These businesses take their place among some of the most historic establishments downtown, including a historic railroad depot that now serves as a museum and the long-operating Coldwater Seed and Supply Store.

“It’s the town’s oldest continually operating business,” Parker said. “They have the old seed bins and cabinets, and they also have a peanut roaster, so there are always fresh-roasted peanuts. It’s still sort of a gathering place — people will linger for a while and talk to the proprietor.”

Also downtown is Spring Park, a green space built around a natural waterfall and the site of the town’s annual celebrations and festivals. Six blocks away from the downtown area is Ivy Green, the home where Helen Keller was born and raised.

Bradenton, Fla.
As is the case with many other municipalities near popular beach destinations, the downtown of Bradenton, Fla., has long lived in the shadow of nearby resort areas Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key. But a recent effort to bring locals and visitors back into Bradenton has led to an artistic blossoming downtown.

“One thing we really wanted to focus on was the arts,” said Jessica Grace, marketing and public relations manager for the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “So we’ve developed something called Village of the Arts. It’s an artist community that used to be dilapidated housing.
“A group of artists came in and decided to refurbish the homes and make them into studios. Now they’re brightly colored houses. You can go in, shop and see the artists’ galleries.”

The new arts focus has helped to bring attention to existing attractions, such as the South Florida Museum, which is home to the oldest manatee living in captivity. Groups can also visit the Arts Center of Manatee County, or catch up with the Pittsburgh Pirates during the baseball team’s spring training in Bradenton.

In addition to visiting the galleries and attractions, visitors can take Segway tours of downtown or get an introduction to the area on one of the sightseeing cruises that departs from the downtown marina.

Realize Bradenton, the organization spearheading the revitalization efforts, is also planning some special events for downtown.

“They’re working on the Singing River Festival for 2011 in the fall,” Grace said. “It will be a concert on the river with food, art and events.”

Morgantown, W.Va.
Home to the University of West Virginia, Morgantown was recognized as one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations in 2007. Over the past five years, the city has undergone a downtown facelift, burying power lines, installing stylized lampposts and flower baskets and upgrading historic storefronts.

Today, visitors can enjoy time downtown with 75 retailers and 35 restaurants, cafes and taverns.
“Downtown is a mixture of things,” said Cindy Coffindaffer, director of marketing with the Greater Morgantown Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s hip, it’s urban, and it’s very vibrant. It’s a great place to stroll, because it’s about a half-mile long.”

Shoppers will find interesting items at a variety of stores downtown; they include home decor items, children’s toys and games, jewelry and handmade leather items. The exciting new place to eat is a 1950s-style diner called Tailpipes that serves gourmet hamburgers.
The arts also have a place in the center of Morgantown.

“We have an art gallery downtown for our arts collaborative group,” Coffindaffer said. “We also have Monongalia Arts Center, which has a gallery and a lot of local theater groups performing there. And we have Appalachian Gallery, which is all local artists from around the state. It’s glass items, vases, pottery, portraits, art, paintings and photography.”

Visitors should also stop by the historic Hotel Morgan and the Metropolitan Theatre, which hosted performances by many national entertainers, including Morgantown native Don Knotts.

Chattanooga, Tenn.
The city of Chattanooga formed an action plan to revitalize their downtown back in the 1980s, and called it Vision 2000. Things started hopping with the opening of the Tennessee Aquarium, and the revitalization has continued well into the 21st century.

Courtesy Chattanooga CVB

“The aquarium was really the anchor of downtown revitalization,” said Candace Davis, marketing manager for the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Before that, no one came downtown for anything. But after it was built, there was a mass of people that started coming downtown — not only locals, but visitors from around the Southeast as well. At that time, it was the largest freshwater aquarium  in the country.”

The renewed visitation to downtown soon brought the opening of dozens of local shops and restaurants, as well as the growth of some existing attractions. From 1992 to 2000, new museums and expansions were opening nearly every year, including the Hunter Museum of American Art, the Creative Discovery and Coolidge Park.

Another major milestone came in 2005, when the city completed its new RiverWalk. Today the area is the site of numerous annual festivals as well as outdoor activity options for visitors, such as river kayaking tours. Visitors can follow the RiverWalk to the Bluff View Arts District and other downtown attractions.

“The best thing about downtown is the fact that it’s so pedestrian friendly,” Davis said. “Or you can take the free electric shuttle from downtown to the Chattanooga Choo Choo, which is about 16 blocks. There are restaurants, attractions, shopping and parks along the way.”

Athens, Ga.

After the shopping mall epidemic hit Athens, Ga., some of the talent from the local university put their creative prowess to work on a way to bring downtown back to prominence.

Courtesy Athens CVB

“The tipping point for downtown was in the mid-’80s when a mall opened outside of town,” said Hannah Smith, communications manager for the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Our downtown stores emptied and moved out of town. But being right across the street from the University of Georgia, a lot of creative individuals came in and opened little independent boutiques and restaurants, as well as our nightlife scene. Today we really don’t have a problem with empty storefronts.”

One of the main hubs of downtown is Clayton Street, a retail area where visitors will find stores with locally made arts and crafts, handmade jewelry and creative clothing. Another neighborhood, called Five Points, has some of the city’s best restaurants, including two restaurants operated by a local man who has been nominated as one of the best chefs in the Southeast.

Arts and culture lovers will find attractions on the university campus or nearby at the Lyndon House Arts Center.

“The Lyndon House has a heritage and modern aspect all in the same city,” Smith said. “It’s an antebellum restored home in the front, and they’ve built a modern art gallery wing off the back of it. So you can tour it and see how people lived in the mid-19th century, and then see modern art displayed in the gallery.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.