Originally created 09/29/03

Harlem hopes efforts bring people to area



Harlem officials have turned their eyes to the city's downtown area in hopes that outsiders will, too.

They anticipate that preservation of the city's historic properties and some aggressive downtown refurbishing will entice more travelers to detour into the birthplace of Oliver Hardy.

"I want them to stop and shop," Harlem Mayor Scott Dean said. "I want them to stop and look around and enjoy what we have here."

Along with many small towns across the country that have a limited employment base and population, Harlem is starting to understand the power of tourists, who, while enjoying history, shopping and restaurants, increase business and tax revenue.

"It all means more revenue coming into the county," Mr. Dean told Columbia County officials during a recent meeting at which he asked for a $25,000 contribution, to be matched by the city of Harlem, for street improvements and building facade grants.

"We are hoping this is something we can all work together on to make Harlem more viable to the county," Mr. Dean said. "More revenues for us means more revenues for the county."

With a $967 grant from the Greater Augusta Arts Council, the Laurel and Hardy Museum of Harlem, one of the city's most popular attractions, was painted this month, and resident Mario Enriquez completed a mural of the comedy duo on the building's front last week.

According to City Manager Jean Dove, Harlem received a $300,000 grant from the state Department of Transportation to be used for widening Louisville Road from East Forrest Street to Gordon Highway and replacing curbside parking with a new lot behind the police department. The grant, which was matched by $60,000 from the city and in-kind donations, also is being used for new lampposts, benches and trash cans.

The G. Ben Turnipseed Engineering Firm is completing plans for the project and is scheduled to break ground at the end of the year, Mr. Dean said.

The city is following in the footsteps of other small historic towns, such as Warrenton, about 20 miles west of Harlem, which has invested in new downtown sidewalks, trees and lighting.

It also has purchased an old movie theater and plans to renovate it in hopes of turning Main Street into a tourist destination.

"What we have got to do is make this more attractive," Warrenton Mayor Ed Ricketson Jr. said. "Warren County is one of the most historical counties in the state. So we have a lot going for us."

According to a five-year study by the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, the rehabilitation of historic properties in the state has created 7,550 jobs and an economic impact of $559 million.

Harlem officials would like their businesses to reap some of those benefits.

In the spring, the Harlem City Council formed a Historic, Trade & Tourism Department and created a Historic Preservation Commission under it.

At a meeting earlier this month, the preservation commission, led by Ann Blalock, agreed on boundaries for a new Harlem Historic District along the city's main drags, with separate pockets for scattered historic properties.

"We hope to be able to preserve buildings that are historically significant to Harlem," Mrs. Blalock said. "We do have a lot of them and are hoping to be able to make any new construction consistent with what is already there."

The commission is working with Harlem's Planning and Zoning officials to develop regulations for construction within the historic districts, she said.

In the spring, the group paid $3,000 for University of Georgia students to come up with architectural drawings of what the city might look like with major renovations to its streets and historic buildings, including the Tracey Luckey Pecan Co., the Masonic Building, Kay's Pharmacy and the Columbia Theatre.

"This is a 50-year vision," Mr. Dean said. "That is what I am shooting at. That is what I kind of sold it to council as. We are setting the bar for the next 50 years in the city."

Reach Valerie Rowell at (706) 868-1222, ext. 110, or valmac007@hotmail.com.