Ball Ground City Manager Eric Wilmarth said joining the Main Street startup program falls in line with Ball Ground’s slogan.
“It says ‘Welcome to Ball Ground, where we roll out the red carpet and not the red tape,’” Wilmarth said.
Wilmarth said that with the new incentives that come with being in the start-up program, Ball Ground is even more business-friendly than before.
“Part of our district is already an opportunity zone, which allows businesses to get tax credits for creating jobs within that zone. So if we can bring, on top of that, less-expensive loans to buy or expand a building, it’s just one more tool that makes downtown Ball Ground more attractive than someplace else,” he said.
Ball Ground Mayor Rick Roberts said he’s excited to join the program.
“This is a tremendous opportunity to bring people and business to downtown Ball Ground,” Roberts said. “It’s an honor to be selected for this prestigious national program, which will allow us to leverage our many existing downtown assets. We’re looking forward to working with GDCA toward full certification.”
Roberts said the program has worked for many other cities’ downtown areas, and with hard work, it will payoff for Ball Ground, too.
“For so many recent years, we really didn’t have opportunities in the downtown area. We had too many facilities that were not open or could not be used for business,” Roberts explained. “This program … it’s worked. It takes some dollars and it takes some city dedication, as well.”
Roberts said he thinks the program will entice people who are thinking about starting a business to do so, and he hopes the program will bring back some of the vitality of downtown.
“When I was a kid, it was very prosperous. Lots of business was going on, then everybody started to pull out,” he said. “It just takes time and it takes people. As population grows, I don’t want people having to leave where they live to find shops, and restaurants and a fun time.”
Achieving Main Street designation usually takes two years, Wilmarth said. But as a start-up program through the Department of Community Affairs, Wilmarth said the process could take as little as one year.
“They provide us with assistance to fast-track the process, and if we get everything completed then we’re able to get the designation in one year instead of two years,” Wilmarth said. “The initial thing going into it, is being selected, then our downtown merchants and property owners are eligible to apply for 3 percent loan money through the state of Georgia.”
But lower loan rates are just one of the many advantages to cities that are selected to participate in the Main Street start-up program, the city manager added.
From leadership and budget development, to technical assistance and work plans, Wilmarth said the assistance from the GDCA will help Ball Ground join 96 other cities statewide that are in the Main Street Program.
“You become part of a network of entities that are downtown Main Streets. They have Main Street managers that have been through the process of revitalizing their downtowns, so you have access to wisdom from people that have already gone through the process,” Wilmarth said.
Wilmarth said the ability to learn from the experience of other cities that have seen similar problems and success will be essential to bettering the downtown area.
“For cities like Ball Ground where we’re already starting to see more activity, where we’re starting to see more interest, where our downtown occupancy rate is the best it’s been in 15 years but we still have vacancies and we still have buildings that aren’t usable,” the Main Street start-up program can offer important information to aid in the downtown area’s success, Wilmarth said.
Along with Ball Ground, the city of Holly Springs was also selected for the 2014-15 program. These cities will work to join other Cherokee County cities that are already part of the Main Street network, including Woodstock and Canton.
Roberts said the Main Street program will help downtown offer residents alternatives to big-box and chain stores or restaurants.
“When you look at our downtown, we still have a great potential. This is a way to hopefully help us reach the potential,” Roberts said. “I don’t want the city to ever be an obstacle to promoting development and small business.”
Changes already underway
Wilmarth said that he sees Ball Ground following in similar footsteps of the successful downtown Woodstock program, but that Ball Ground will keep its small-town, tight-knit community appeal.
The main goal is to create an area where people can go to do more than just one thing. He said that as downtown Ball Ground grows and more small businesses come into the Main Street area, the community will have more options for enjoying the area.
“The old pharmacy is under renovations inside, and the tenant says he’ll have his renter inside in mid-January, which will be another unique shop where they’ll sell soaps and lotions,” Wilmarth said. “We have a building downtown that’s been vacant for some time due to close next week, and they have told us they plan on putting in a coffee shop with a boutique.”
Ball Ground officials will work the Georgia Department of Community Affairs to meet the 10 standards of the National Main Street Center, a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Through the program, the city will focus on four core areas of improvement, including design, organization, economic restructuring and promotion, to revitalize the downtown area.
Wilmarth said being part of the start-up program fits with the city’s current projects. The public restrooms and stage in the park, being added to downtown Ball Ground, are examples of some of the improvements happening in the area, Wilmarth said.
The goal is, through the Main Street program, downtown Ball Ground will revive its commercial district, strengthen the local economy and increase civic engagement.
Wilmarth said the city will set up a Main Street board to focus on the project, and one of the current part-time employees of the city will add another eight hours to their schedule to specifically focus on issues that face downtown, as part of the start-up.
Wilmarth said one of the issues that he and other city officials are already “working on, almost on a daily basis,” is trying to divert large truck traffic off of Main Street. The city council has discussed the issue at previous meetings, but going through the Georgia Department of Transportation is “a battle you have to just continue,” he said.
“When you’re in it, it can seem difficult,” Wilmarth said. “We’ll get a lot of ‘nos’ but it will happen, because we’ll be consistent and we’ll stay the course until it’s a more pedestrian-friendly and car-friendly atmosphere downtown.”