Alabama News Center - Monroeville is Writing its New Chapter

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April 11, 2018

Historic downtown Monroeville is writing its new chapter with its Monroeville Main Street program. (Michael Tomberlin / Alabama NewsCenter)

Monroeville just might be one of the most recognized downtowns in Alabama and now it is turning the page to a renaissance.

Home of the late Harper Lee and other literary and journalism legends, Monroeville has more to offer in its downtown square than the courthouse-turned museum made famous in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The new chapter is being authored by Monroeville Main Street, the local entity formed with the help of Main Street Alabama that marries revitalization with historic preservation for economic development.

“Main Street has been a fantastic program,” Monroeville Mayor Joseph Oglesby said. “They brought new life back to downtown.”

Monroeville Main Street is writing the book on its downtown revitalization from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

That new life was sorely needed. The Great Recession of 2007-2008 hit the seat of Monroe County especially hard. Monroe County had an unemployment rate of 22.3 percent in November 2009. In February 2018, the preliminary unemployment rate was 6.8 percent after having dipped to as low as 5 percent in September 2017.

“We’re like any small town – the heart of the town is our main street area, our downtown square,” Oglesby said. “We’ve got such a fantastic jewel in the center of town in our old courthouse. We’ve always been so proud to have it. Now people are taking a little bit of that pride and they’re putting it into the buildings they own. You can drive around the square in Monroeville and you can see millions of dollars of work that people have put into their buildings over the last few years because there is that sense of pride back in the downtown.”

Main Street Alabama communities. (Main Street Alabama)

Oglesby and others believe that pride got newfound life in 2014 when Main Street Alabama designated Monroeville a Main Street Community.

“Monroeville has fully embraced the Main Street ‘Four Point Approach’ of organization, design, promotion and economic vitality in their downtown district,” said Mary Helmer, president and state coordinator of Main Street Alabama. “It has been wonderful to see the engagement of volunteers, property and business owners and the city in their revitalization journey.  Monroeville Main Street understands the importance of working in all four points and connecting with partners in the community and region.”

Anne Marie Bryan is director of Monroeville Main Street. She said those who backed Main Street saw value in the program and wanted to follow the blueprint.

“We took to heart the market assessment,” Bryan said. “We have valued the tools they’ve given us and worked with them because they truly are the professionals.”

Bryan said the Main Street program had the backing of the city government, the Monroeville-Monroe County Chamber of Commerce, the Monroeville-Monroe County Economic Development Authority and others.

“I’m grateful for all of the support,” she said. “We could not do this if it wasn’t a team effort – if we didn’t team up with the library, the museum, the chamber, the city, the county, the economic development office – because together we’re far more efficient than we are if we’re all trying to work against each other on our own.”

The city did streetscaping and other improvements very early in the process, making downtown more pedestrian-friendly. The local garden club spruced up potted plants and revitalized the square’s rose garden.

But it was the small businesses that began to invest in new storefronts and buy buildings downtown that really started showing the fruits of Monroeville Main Street’s efforts.

“Monroeville is a great example of how effective a Designated Main Street program can be for a community,” Helmer said. “Since 2014, this district alone has cultivated 13 net new businesses and 37 net new jobs. Successes like these truly change the narrative for communities and create vibrant districts.”

Bryan and Monroeville Main Street work with small businesses to walk them through things like permitting, historical commission approvals, applying for grants and accessing capital, among other assistance.

“One of my favorite things is to see businesses that test the waters – they come in and try a little bit at a time, then move from location to location as they expand,” Bryan said. “We’ve had a number of those that have purchased their own buildings.”

One of those businesses is Denise Goldman’s Becoming Wellness Spa.

Goldman’s own skin issues got her interested in makeup and eventually led her back to school to learn how to do facials and other treatments.

She began doing facials in a local salon but eventually decided to open her own place, which she did next to the Monroeville Post Office on the downtown square. Her business quickly tripled and she had to move into a larger space next door and within a few months she was outgrowing that space, too.

Goldman always liked the building she’s in now and bought it when it became available. The much larger space allowed her to offer a full range of spa treatments including facials, pedicures, manicures, cosmetology, massage therapy, body wraps and a sauna. It gave her an area to sell makeup and spa products and have four private treatment rooms.

“We’ve been here about a year and a half and we love it,” she said.

Sales last month were 250 percent higher than a year ago.

“It’s just growing,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of really good ladies working here and a lot of really good customers that keep coming back. It’s just been fantastic.”

Goldman credits Monroeville Main Street with walking her through her moves and her growth.

So, too, does Ashley House, owner of Monroe Signs.

Her business started outside the downtown area and she decided to make the move to downtown Monroeville.

“We like being a part of the community here,” House said. “I can’t say enough about being on the square. I wouldn’t be anywhere else, that’s for sure.”

Her business personalizes items for businesses, organizations or individuals. She said repeat business and new walk-ins are better downtown.

Businesses like clothing retailer Studio 3:19 and restaurant Prop & Gavel joined long-standing downtown businesses as part of the modern renaissance.

“When we opened downtown there was not as much activity as we’re seeing now,” said Tawny Carter, co-owner and executive chef at Prop & Gavel. “We’re seeing more foot traffic and activity now. It’s certainly starting to take off and we’re seeing a spike in activity.”

Other business like Bonehead Boots chose to open a second location on the square after noticing so many of its customers at its Brewton store were coming from Monroeville.

The mayor said it’s been eye-opening for a number of businesses.

“Initially, people were a little skeptical: ‘Do we need another program, something else?’ But since Main Street focuses just on our downtown main street it’s given that little extra push,” Oglesby said. “Our occupancy rates are up. At one point in time we had a lot of vacant buildings on the square but now we have few buildings available.”

Bryan said buildings are still being sold with big plans.

“We’ve had a few buildings sell recently,” she said. “We have a venue space coming in, I’m pretty sure about. We have a project between stage one and stage two of the federal tax credit for renovations on historic buildings.”

The top floor of that building will be converted into four one-bedroom apartments, the first upstairs living for downtown Monroeville.

But it won’t be the first residence downtown. A handful of homes are in the Main Street district, including that of Al Brewton, the Monroeville City councilman who represents the district that includes downtown. Brewton owns a business in the district.

He supported Main Street from the beginning.

“It was a very comprehensive, organized way of getting involved and keeping things up to date and then it had such excellent follow-through that we thought it would be an excellent way of improving our downtown,” Brewton said. “We’re starting to see some visible evidence of it now. We’re very glad for that.”

Brewton believes the best is yet to come.

“I would like to see more visible evidence. We would love to see more businesses locate here – restaurants, entertainment district – big, huge plans and looking down the road,” he said.

Monroeville Main Street has launched its first downtown mural project, a tribute to Truman Capote and “A Christmas Memory,” his short story with strong ties to Monroeville.

It’s an example of a community using its assets and connections to enhance its downtown, a tenet of the Main Street program.

“Across Alabama, we are seeing the impact of communities working this approach to effectively create districts that are well-managed and maintained as well as entrepreneur-friendly, becoming the place citizens choose to do business,” Helmer said.

In that regard, you might say Monroeville is doing it by the book.