The future of downtown Demopolis: Niche shops and offices the best option

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 30, 2004

What kind of realistic future does business have in downtown Demopolis? Jay Shows, executive director of the Demopolis Area Chamber of Commerce, believes the downtown will see a mixture of niche or specialty shops with professional offices for attorneys, insurance companies or government agencies. “That’s the only way it can go,” he said.

“…Wal-Mart is not going to come downtown.” Businesses that only need 50 people a day compared to 10,000 a day would fit nicely in downtown Demopolis. “The day of downtown retail is gone as far as large volume.”

The recent controversy over an amendment to the city sign ordinance has prompted a wealth of talk about the future of downtown Demopolis.

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“In this instance, the Chamber of Commerce does not have a particular stance,” Shows said. The chamber would like to have both parties see “the big picture,” which is keeping downtown viable.

A downtown revitalization committee was formed a few years ago, he said. “Some wonderful ideas came up; some of them were actually carried out.” The committee transformed into a historic downtown business committee and then seemed to die out.

The new Demopolis Historic Preservation Commission has proposed regulations, which would mandate a particular style for the downtown historic district. Shows believes these recommendations should be offered more in the form of guidelines and that businesses and property owners could be offered tax incentives to conform to those guidelines.

Shows has toured downtowns in Alabama towns such as Andalusia, Greenville, Evergreen and Thomasville. “Demopolis already has a more vibrant downtown than any of those,” he said.

“…We need to look at other areas.” Shows plans to visit Clanton next. However, “there is no magic bullet out there.” The chamber will offer any ideas or resources to help downtown business owners find a tenant.

The idea of “quant downtown” or “not having tacky, crappy looking buildings – that will help any downtown, whether it’s modern or historic. “That’s just a matter of pride.”

The vision of the Demopolis chamber is to encourage the historic integrity of the buildings. “That will be a plus for Demopolis. At the same time give building and business owners incentives…for them to buy into downtown Demopolis.

Shows appreciates the emphasis the preservationists are putting on downtown. “I encourage them to fall back to the position of giving incentives for voluntary participation and not try to have the attitude that some perceive that we know what’s best.”

However, Shows does not think that downtown merchants can count on historic tourism to bring in enough customers to keep businesses afloat. You would need a half dozen niche stores downtown, he said. An antique shop or a sandwich/coffee shop would work.

“If we have four to six niche stores of interest that tourists would stick there head in, then you can really tandem the downtown with the other historical areas of interest here.

“We have 80-something store fronts downtown, I don’t mean that we need 60 niche stores. You need half a dozen.”

The chamber is also working with the MOST (minority owners sitting together) program. Seven minority business owners met with the chamber last week, Shows said. “Some of these are already downtown, and it is our intention to have two or three new start-ups this year.

“We don’t know if we’ll have any success stories, but we are sure going to have some strong nibbles out.”

Editor’s Note: the Demopolis Historic Preservation Commission will hold a “called meeting” tonight at 5:30 at City Hall. The public is invited.