Down on Main Street: Project designed to help, not hurt, downtown

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 22, 2004

“It’s usually the downtown historic business district that sets the character of a city,” said Brian Brooker, chairperson of the Demopolis Historic Preservation Commission.

On the other hand, there is a concern that the downtown includes a vital business district. “Everybody’s worried about having vacant store fronts. If you develop a certain character that fits what you’ve already got to work with, you’re going to bring people back in.”

Preservation doesn’t stall progress, he said. In fact, property values in developed historic districts are higher. “Business vacancies go down.”

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A public hearing was held during Thursday’s meeting of the Demopolis City Council concerning an amendment to the city sign ordinance proposed by the commission. Some business owners seemed surprised by the proposed change and expressed concern about the power it gives the commission over business property.

Portable, directly illuminated and flashing signs will not be permitted. Signs cannot cause the removal of original decorative features on a building.

There are limits on the size of lettering, and there are restrictions on projected or hanging signs, awnings, canopies and roof decking.

Brooker didn’t expect the amendment was going to cause such concern.

“We have sign ordinances already in affect,” Brooker said. “If you put a sign in downtown, you have to go and get a sign permit and that sign has to be reviewed by the building inspector. It has to meet the current ordinance that we have.

“That ordinance was primarily written for locations like Highway 80. Several years ago they started noticing a problem with Highway 80 having two much visual signs and clutter – portable signs, big billboards, large signs on small buildings.”

That sign ordinance doesn’t work with downtown buildings, he said. The new ordinance was based on case studies of ordinances established in Selma, Birmingham and Mobile. “I don’t know of any CLG city that put in design guidelines and sign ordinances…that have not been successful economically in revitalizing their downtowns,” Brooker said.

The Demopolis Historic Preservation Commission was established last year by the city. The city council chose to participate in the state Certified Local Government (CLG) program, which is run by the Alabama Historical Commission. It’s a program that allows cities to have access to federal and state dollars and grant opportunities for historic preservation development.

“Historic preservation has been such a economic growth factor in the communities that have done it that it’s something that Demopolis felt they could take advantage of as well,” he said. One of the requirements of being a CLG city is to have a city preservation commission. “The commission’s goal is to take a look at Demopolis and what aspects of it historically could be developed or become part of Demopolis’ long range comprehensive plan of economic development.”

Brooker said the commission is concerned with all the historic districts and properties, 50 years or older, and not just concerned with the downtown business district.

He believes more communication between the commission and business and property owners will ease concerns. The commission doesn’t want to keep a business out. If a business has signage that wouldn’t meet the guidelines, the commission “will offer suggestions on how it can that will still work for that owner.”

“If we don’t have businesses downtown, we don’t have the resources to keep preserving what we’re trying to do,” Brooker said.

Horticulturist Amanda Smith was faced with opposition when she proposed city landscaping ordinances, but through her personally working with individuals business owners, the ordinance was passed and seems to have made a positive impact on the look of the city. “Now that they have seen what results can be gained from it and how it really doesn’t hinder you, it’s positive. Nobody today would say get rid of the Beautification Commission.”

The commission would like to keep a certain character to the city. “We’re trying to make the type of signage and the type of canopies and awnings that fit the design of the buildings that are already here,” he said.

“…Each building is a part of an overall whole – which is a total character of what makes Demopolis a historic city. No city is defined by its strip development. Most all cities have a certain definition – especially small rural towns like this.

Keeping the character of the city will make Demopolis be attractive to the many tourists that visit each year, Brooker said. There are thousands who come and visit Gaineswood and Bluff Hall and often remark on the beauty of the city.

There are certain businesses that would not fit into a historic downtown area, he said. “That’s why we have zoning.” On the other hand, there are communities where a fast food business has adapted a storefront to meet and kept “the historic integrity of that building.

“There are certain business that are going to flourish in a historic downtown environment that would never make it on a corridor like Highway 80,” he said.

The commission needs to do a better job in the coming weeks of educating people. There is not a certain set of preservation rules that are sent down from a historical commission that cities have to adhere to, he said.

Every historic district has a character of its own, Brooker said. They can’t be all the same. “We’re going to be asking the people in the neighborhoods and the communities…to give their suggestions.”

The commission meets the first Tuesday of the month at Demopolis City Hall, and he welcomed anyone with concerns to visit the meeting.

The ordinance amendment will not likely brought up again until Brooker feels that everyone understands the proposed changes. “We won’t to get everybody on board and in favor of it. We weren’t trying to blindside anybody (with Thursday’s hearing).”