Originally created 12/11/97

Officials concerned about downtown Aiken



AIKEN -- A group of economic development leaders, concerned that Aiken's downtown is adrift, has asked for outside help to get the city on course.

A subcommittee of Aiken's Downtown Development Association is calling for HyettPalma, Inc. to recreate the economic renaissance that some say disappeared in the late 1980s. The cost for the study, if approved by city council, would be $8,500 plus travel expenses.

Members of the Aiken Corp. -- a group charged with promoting economic development by the city council -- reviewed the recommendation Tuesday and decided to get more information before giving its seal of approval.

Proponents of the idea say the city is lacking the leadership needed to push economic development efforts, but there is no question that the area has drastically improved over the last 10 years.

"All that glitters isn't gold," warned Skipper Perry, a councilman and subcommittee member who counts years of experience as a downtown merchant. "You can put a pretty suit on a dead person and lay him in an expensive casket, but you still have a dead person all dressed up with no place to go."

HyettPalma, Inc. is one of the few national firms specializing in the rebirth of downtowns and older business districts. The company, based in Alexandria, Va., looks for unique business potentials dormant in every older business district. It recommends action-oriented strategies that activate those potentials and reinvent a downtown area's economy.

Mr. Perry and others, who aren't as vocal, say that with the exception of the many restaurants in the downtown, there are no real magnets to attract people. If you're a working person, you eat lunch and leave. In the evening, you eat supper, then go home because all the shops are closed.

A lot of people believed the Aiken Center for the Arts would be that anchor, but thus far it hasn't proven to be.

As one would expect, cries from downtown merchants differ dramatically from Mr. Perry's sentiments.

"Economic growth is stronger than it's ever been," said Sam Erb, owner of Westside Bowery and chairman of the Downtown Development Association. "I will be the first to admit that we don't have a perfect downtown, but we've come a long way."

Janet Augeri Morris, director of the development group, agreed.

"I see downtown thriving and people are beginning to realize this is where the action is," Mrs. Morris said.

The city's planning department officials said downtown encompasses about a 27-block area.

According to calculations by Mrs. Morris, there are about 300 businesses in Aiken's Central Business District and less than a dozen empty storefronts.

But if something isn't done to improve the economic mix of the businesses, some fear big-box retailers, like Wal-Mart, will turn downtown into a ghost town.

"Some of our downtown businesses are already out of business and don't realize it," Mr. Perry said.

The Rev. Bill Johnston of First Presbyterian Church, who sat on the subcommittee, said the audit was more of an early warning mechanism as well as a model for development strategies.

"If you sit in the middle of the road, you're going to get run over," Dr. Johnston said. "We have to fight complacency and continue to look at ways to positively develop our downtown. And there is little doubt that if this firm gives us an assessment with some suggestions that money will be an issue."