Tour takes in ‘Heart and Soul’ of downtown Columbus redevelopment

Eagle & Phenix, whitewater, CSU’s RiverPark campus cited as prime examples of success

tadams@ledger-enquirer.comApril 4, 2013 

Billy Parrish has been working on and consulting on city redevelopment efforts for the better part of three decades.

Thursday, standing outside the Eagle & Phenix complex in a slight mist overlooking the Chattahoochee River, he made an observation about downtown Columbus and its soon-to-be-completed whitewater course.

“This is your living aquarium, surrounded by a real community with a deep history and culture, a historic fabric, and a wonderful college. You’ve put together the complete package,” said Parrish, owner and senior advisor with Dunwoody, Ga.-based BillyParrish Consulting. “You’re not a one-note community. Many different people can find something exciting here to enjoy in Columbus, and to make their lives here.”

Parrish was among more than 40 state, business and development-oriented individuals visiting the city as part of a “Heart and Soul of Georgia” tour organized by the Georgia Municipal Association and its Georgia Cities Foundation.

The three-day blitz included stops Wednesday in Eatonton, Milledgeville and Macon, while Hawkinsville, Columbus, West Point and LaGrange were on the itinerary Thursday. It wraps up Friday after stops in Newnan and Carrollton.

The goal for participants of the tour is to come away with ideas and strategies for helping cities across Georgia — downtown areas specifically — embark on revitalization projects and new development to re-energize themselves.

The two-hour Columbus stop included lunch served by Epic restaurant at the Eagle & Phenix, a former textile mill that is being rehabbed into loft apartments and, eventually, a mix of commercial space.

The three-prong presentation was led by Mat Swift, president of W.C. Bradley Co. Real Estate, the old mill’s redeveloper. He tossed out the overall $500 million price tag that has been spent on various projects over the last two decades.

The list included the South Commons softball complex built for the 1996 Summer Olympics, the Columbus Civic Center, the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, Columbus State University’s RiverPark campus, and the corporate headquarters for Synovus and TSYS.

“You’ve got to get the public to buy in. And that’s not always easy,” Swift said of the projects, which included a mix of public and private dollars. And he noted there’s more to come, with Eagle & Phenix work expected to continue several years as a new master plan for downtown moves toward reality.

“Notwithstanding the recession, it would not have happened but for 20 years of development,” Swift said after showing a slide of a riverfront no longer hidden by trees, but bordered by greenspace and recreational areas.

John Turner, chairman of the River Restoration Committee, then briefed those on the tour about the effort to create the world’s longest urban whitewater course — about 2.5 miles in length — while returning the Chattahoochee to its natural state without the dams, reviving the river’s wildlife and plant ecosystem.

He showed the explosive demolition of the Eagle & Phenix dam about a year ago, mixing in videos of whitewater enthusiasts rafting and kayaking the roaring rapids generated by the large rocks in the riverbed and a manmade wave shaper.

Turner also pointed out the whitewater course and its impact will be far-reaching, with redevelopment on the Phenix City side of the river including a new Troy University campus, a new hotel and revitalization of a deteriorating shopping center.

“We have a riverwalk, but we don’t yet have a riverfront. This (Eagle & Phenix) building here is a sign that is starting to happen,” said Turner, ticking off the whitewater numbers. They include an estimated 188,000 participants each year and the generation of $42 million annually in economic impact.

Columbus State University President Tim Mescon wrapped up the “Heart and Soul” tour stop with a bus tour of downtown Columbus, showing how the RiverPark campus has filled once empty or sparsely used buildings, while also infusing the area with arts and theater students and faculty.

“A lot of it is adaptive re-use of historical buildings. And we’re continuing to develop new buildings,” said Mescon, who also discussed a major project that should grow the university’s presence even more as part of the downtown master plan. The addition of nursing students is part of that.

“We’ve turned over about $40 to $50 million in finished construction to the (Georgia) Board of Regents already,” he said.

Mike Starr, president of the Georgia Cities Foundation, said he is impressed with the way Columbus has revived its downtown, calling the whitewater effort “pretty fantastic.”

“What you’ve got here along the riverwalk is a fully integrated live, shop, work environment that’s really unique, at least to Georgia,” Starr said. “You’ve got everything going on in this corridor. We haven’t seen anything like this.”

The tour of Peach State cities has taken place since 2001. Over the past decade, the Georgia Cities Foundation has loaned more than $14 million to 83 projects in 43 cities statewide. It estimates that money generated $72 million-plus in private investment in those communities.

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