AIKEN -- The commute from home to work is less than 100 steps for Doug McClure and Joe Bonin.
It's out of bed, out the door, down a flight of steps and a sharp right turn. No rush. No traffic. No gas. Just leg work.
Mr. McClure, 26, and Mr. Bonin, 27, own an Internet service on downtown Aiken's Laurens Street, directly below their apartment.
Everything is either up the street, down the street, across the street or just a few blocks over.
"It's the best way to live," Mr. Bonin said. "Everything is within walking distance."
It also means that less than $10 in gas will ride the two around for more than a week.
The young entrepreneurs make up less than a handful of people who live in Aiken's Central Business District.
But that could soon change.
The Aiken Corp., which seeks to increase the housing density in the downtown area, is launching a new project designed to help owners of upstairs property convert empty space into one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments. And with more than 75 percent of downtown property concentrated upstairs, there's bound to be some takers. Up to $5,000 per unit will be provided as a no-interest loan, with payback of the note over five years.
Applications will be considered on a first-come, first-serve basis. Leasa Segura, special projects coordinator for the city, is handling the applications.
Across America, cities have struggled to restore their downtowns. They have invested in landscape programs, facade improvements and promotional efforts with little or modest results. Most have discovered that to rejuvenate their downtowns, they need people.
"The only real complaint I have is there's no grocery store," said Mr. McClure.
But without a resident population in and around the downtown, the necessary investments like a grocery store, parking decks, attractive walkways and special lighting will be nearly impossible to justify, said Wade Brodie, chairman of the Aiken Corp.