It's not unusual these days to see downtown Aiken's brick-bordered sidewalks busy with shoppers and diners.
Its central artery, Laurens Street - described by one shopkeeper as "an open-air mall with a street down the middle" - offers just about anything short of fresh produce.
The central business district continues to draw entrepreneurs wanting to become part of the revival.
Just last week, downtown welcomed Ferrando's Italian Pizzeria Restaurant and Teabelles Tearoom and Giftshop.
"It seemed like a small, quaint-enough community that would accept something like this," said Lauren Cross, who co-owns Teabelles. "We were able to create the vision we had."
That wasn't always the case. As in many American cities, Aiken's downtown became sluggish when some tenants took flight for suburban malls and shopping centers.
Augusta's downtown business district, for example, spent most of the 1980s and early '90s in blight after major retailers moved to the city's two malls, one of which has since closed.
Although downtown Augusta has undergone tremendous revitalization during the past decade, 20 percent remains vacant. The majority of that empty space consists of department stores, said Chris Naylor, the city's Downtown Development Authority executive director.
His Aiken counterpart, Janet Augeri Morris, the executive director of the Aiken Downtown Development Association, estimates Aiken's downtown is about 95 percent occupied.
When the association started in 1988, occupancy hovered around 80 percent.
"You're seeing the fruits of a solid foundation that was laid 14 years ago," she said. "This has not just happened in the last six months."
Aiken's fortunes began to change in the late 1970s, said Van Smith, who owns Lionel Smith Ltd. on Laurens Street. He said older tenants who were retiring began to lease their property to more enthusiastic businesses.
"(Older tenants) didn't want to do a lot of work," said Mr. Smith, whose father opened the clothing store 26 years ago. "(Today) it's hard to find anyone moving out that's in a prime location."
On one side of Mr. Smith's clothing store is the Taste-N-See coffee shop. On the other is the Aiken Brewing Co., which routinely attracts diners to its street-side patio in the evenings.
The city has invested thousands of dollars in downtown beautification efforts, which also benefit from the association fees collected by Ms. Morris' organization.
Businesses that left years ago have returned, and when storefront space becomes available it is quickly gobbled up, Ms. Morris said.
Margaret Holley, the owner of Aiken Office Supply, moved her store from 106 Park Ave. to the city's growing southside in 1995. Last year, she reopened the downtown location.
"We've made a lot of improvements downtown," she said. "We have two cities now, downtown and southside."
Downtown Aiken's tenants say the area's greatest asset is that it remains interesting to the city's newcomers.
"They're saying, 'Wow, this is neat,"' said Kraig Holdman, the manager at the Lionel Smith store. "It's new to them, so it's still fresh."
New downtown Aiken businesses:
Businesses relocating in downtown
Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 279-6895 or email@example.com.
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