Georgia Downtown Association

Georgia Downtown Association

    
    

City of Monroe Recognized as the Best Transformation, Downtown of the Year, During the 2019 Annual Georgia Downtown Conference

September 20, 2019
Arial Photo of Downtown Monroe GA

Not so long ago, the City of Monroe’s downtown was struggling to survive. Though revitalization efforts were underway from 2006 to 2010, the local leaders that were driving the momentum were discouraged and tired from the lack of results. In the wake of the national economic crash, businesses and community members were struggling to stay positive. The city had worked to earn Mainstreet status in 2009, but by 2012, there was high turnover in the part-time downtown manager position, businesses that had been cornerstones of downtown were closing, and the general consensus was that Monroe Downtown would never be what it once was. A common statement heard around town was “businesses just can’t make it in Monroe.”

With a 40% vacancy rate and a downtown development program with effectively no city funding, the future was not looking bright for Monroe.  However, the city council and what was left of the volunteer downtown committees still believed in the potential of Monroe to become something special again. City Council made the decision that a full-time city position to focus on downtown development was needed. With new leadership and a re-energized Downtown Development Authority, the city began capitalizing on the opportunities to make little changes with big impacts on a small-town environment. Projects like creating a small pocket park, updating the sponsorship structure, adding new events, doing creative art installations, partnering with the Georgia Council for the Arts and Georgia Humanities to host exhibits and get grants for murals all worked together to generate more energy in the community. 

The new Downtown Development Authority Board learned all they could by participating in trainings, site visits, and time spent with some of the best in the field from nearby towns. They also pursued every financial tool and potential partnership available receiving multiple Downtown Development Revolving Loan Funds from DCA and the Georgia Cities Foundation as well as a redevelopment fund grant through CDBG that helped restore a blighted historic property and create a local revolving loan fund for future projects. As a result, downtown Monroe has made one of the greatest comebacks imaginable. With current downtown occupancy at 100% and the creation of 132 net new jobs since 2015, Monroe is thriving once again. By the end of 2019 alone, there has been the renovation of 7 historic buildings, the opening of 6 new restaurants, 2 brewery announcements, and the start of numerous construction projects that will bring a total private investment of over $20 million into downtown. Plans for infill development of new residential and commercial space quickly followed. 

The calendar of downtown events attracts close to 50,000 visitors annually, from Friday night concerts to Saturday morning farmers markets, and the repurposed cotton mills are home to the largest collection of antique markets in the state, creating a regional draw to the area.  It’s a thrilling surprise to now have other communities asking us for advice and guidance.

In all these accomplishments, the greatest reward is the transformation that happened in the perception of Monroe as a city. People are filled with hope again. People talk about Monroe with excitement for the future. Long-time residents love that this is their home, and downtown has been at the heart of if all.

The City of Monroe was also Recognized for Most Creative New Event with its Farm to Table Dinner

Monroe’s Farm to Table Dinner, benefiting the Monroe Farmers Market has quickly become one of the premier events in downtown.  The idea for the event grew from a group of passionate individuals who wanted raise funds for the Farmers Market programs while showcasing local farmers and chefs.  In the first year, the event covered expenses and made a small profit selling 75 tickets to the event.  In 2019, the third year organizing the event, over $10,000 was raised for the downtown farmers market.  The available event tickets were increased to 150 and sold out over a month before the deadline.  Five local restaurants and chefs participated in the event this year, volunteering their time and charging only for their food costs.  A local brewery and martini bar, which is set to open later this year was featured.  Chefs worked with market management to acquire locally grown food whenever possible.  Other downtown businesses contributed by providing desserts, marketing, branding, photography services, and donating event space to use for staging and prep. 

Farm To Table Photo

Although small in scale compared to most events in downtown, the farm to table dinner has a large impact on the community and helps local farmers market reach their goal of supplying healthy, locally grown products to as many tables as possible.
 

Monroe’s Downtown Alley Project

In 2018, two of the Downtown Development Authorities top priorities were to address parking challenges and create more places to play within downtown. With these goals in mind, the idea of an activity alley was quickly put at the top of the to-do list. The concept was to take an existing alleyway and make it entertaining and interesting. The hope was that visitors would park in areas near the alleyway and not on the main street in order to walk through the alley on the way to other shops and restaurants. The ultimate hope was for the alley to become a destination itself with interactive musical instruments and games like hopscotch and jumping challenges.

Alley Before
Alley Before
To raise awareness and funds, a crowd-funding campaign was started with a call to the community to help create “places to play.” The alleyway was one of three projects proposed. Momentum quickly built as a promotional video and images for the crowd-funding spread around social media. People began to give online, and as the news continued to spread, the local Kiwanis Club contacted us wanting to give a large donation to purchase the instruments we had picked out for the alley. At the end of the campaign more than $15,000 had been raised for the places to play projects.

Alley After
Alley After
A date was set right away to make the alley a reality. On a Saturday in late April, DDA board members, city staff, council members and local business owners all joined in for a workday to clean and paint the alley. At the end of the day, the alley was filled with vibrant colors and new vegetation. Musical flowers were now the centerpiece in a wall of instruments and inspirational music quotes. The new colorful mural was completed, and it has quickly become the backdrop of hundreds of pictures. String lighting now lines the buildings to provide more security to a once dark alley that was previously a pass through for the trash truck and a back entrance for businesses. In just a few short weeks since completing the project, it is rare to walk by and not see someone playing instruments, games or taking photographs.  This colorful alley has provided a pedestrian pathway from what is considered “off street” parking to the heart of downtown.

The success of this alley lead to interest in similar projects in other alleyways. A few coats of paint, hard work, community support and creativity transformed these unused areas into popular spots in a short amount of time, showing that not every project has to be large in scale to make an impact.