Ring the Trolley Bell! Sweet Auburn Works Is on Board

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Two very positive happenings that will bring physical, organizational, and economic advancements to Sweet Auburn, the historic African-American neighborhood district at the edge of downtown Atlanta, are occurring simultaneously. One of the undertakings is a public transportation project; and the other is the development of a commercial revitalization program of work. Both undertakings are moving on parallel tracks within Sweet Auburn’s commercial district.     

The City is installing infrastructure and accompanying public improvements to facilitate the construction of the Atlanta Streetcar project. The resulting trolley system will run through downtown Atlanta, from Peachtree Street to the Martin Luther King Jr. historic district. The potential looms large for bringing a major influx of additional visitors and local residents into the Sweet Auburn commercial district.

At the same time, dedicated Sweet Auburn community stakeholders have moved forward with the establishment of a commercial revitalization organization that utilizes the Main Street Four Point Approach®. The newly-formed “Sweet Auburn Works” organization is now firmly on track, ready to integrate the streetcar transportation enhancement project as part of the program’s strategic plans for revitalizing the Sweet Auburn commercial district.

As mentioned in a previous article, Sweet Auburn is particularly distinct in that it was the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is where he was raised, worked, and worshipped and where he is buried.  A National Historic Site, which includes the King Center complex, Ebenezer Baptist Church, the King Birth Home, and preserved active residential properties, is in the center of this historic neighborhood. The business district along Auburn Avenue was once a commercial power-house, dubbed in 1957 by Fortune Magazine as “the richest Negro street in the world.”

Like many urban neighborhood business districts across the country that have experienced decline, Sweet Auburn’s fortunes suffered severe economic reversals over several decades – moving from a vital commercial economic engine in the 50s to a low point today. Thanks largely to efforts of the Historic District Development Corporation (HDDC), the neighborhood’s historic residential district has been artfully restored and rejuvenated and has enjoyed an amazing renaissance in the past 20 years. But most of the businesses and commercial buildings concentrated on Auburn Avenue have not fared as well. Many of those properties are seriously deteriorated, a large number of storefronts are unoccupied, and businesses that remain on the Avenue are having a tough go surviving. This situation has placed the historic and cultural fabric of the community’s commercial core in serious jeopardy.

The Organization Is Created

In 2012, the National Trust for Historic preservation named the Sweet Auburn Historic District a National Treasure and listed Sweet Auburn’s commercial district as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places®. The Trust understood that what was needed was a viable economic development strategy for the commercial district that would build on the historic fabric, character and legacy of the properties and small businesses owned and operated by African-Americans. At the same time, the strategy needed to maintain the cultural identity of Sweet Auburn’s commercial core and encourage redevelopment that is responsive to today’s markets.

To meet that challenge, the Trust turned to the National Main Street Center (NMSC) as the conduit for providing technical assistance and support that would guide the Sweet Auburn community in its efforts to establish a comprehensive strategic plan for revitalizing the Sweet Auburn commercial district. Implicit in that goal would be the creation of a Main Street® program that would manage the redevelopment process.

The collaboration between the NMSC and a group of dedicated stakeholders resulted in the creation of a Sweet Auburn steering committee, which moved quickly to establish a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization that utilizes the Main Street Four Point Approach®. “Sweet Auburn Works” has a working board in place and four standing committees, peopled by a broad base of volunteer support from the community. The organization has forged important public and private partnerships, put a work plan in place, initiated improvement projects, established a fundraising program, and set a goal of hiring a Main Street manager by the first of next year.

The neighborhood has enormous assets upon which Sweet Auburn Works can build a Main Street program that will lead and manage the revitalization of the commercial district. Apart from its historic and cultural significance within the City of Atlanta, one of Sweet Auburn’s chief features is the neighborhood’s remarkable location and setting. It is immediately adjacent to downtown Atlanta, bounded on the west by Georgia State University’s campus and on the east by the amazing Atlanta BeltLine, a huge revitalization project of the City, which is re-using 22 miles of historic railroad corridors that encircle the downtown as a network of public parks and multi-use trails. There are three major historic and significant African-American Churches located along Auburn Avenue; and the neighborhood is replete with restored historic residential properties, new infill construction, and adaptive reuse of large “white elephant” buildings into apartments and condominiums. As mentioned above, in the center of the neighborhood is the 10-block Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site.

The Streetcar Cometh

The Atlanta Streetcar adds one more dimension to what will make the Sweet Auburn neighborhood even more distinct and attractive to local residents and to visitors. During the time that the NMSC has been working with Sweet Auburn stakeholders, the City, the Atlanta business community, and MARTA was actively engaged in the development stage of the Streetcar system. As you read this report, construction of the transportation project is running apace; and the opening of the Atlanta Streetcar is slated for late spring 2014. Meanwhile, Sweet Auburn Works is already planning a major celebration of the opening event.

The people of Sweet Auburn took the support and assistance that the National Trust offered with the National Treasure designation and are putting the training and technical assistance provided by the NMSC to good use. By the time the streetcar system is operational, the district will be showing its new and engaging face to a receptive local audience and to the hundreds of thousand visitors that are drawn to the district because of the National Historic Site.

Several weeks ago, I awoke to Morning Edition on my local NPR station to hear the words, “Sweet Auburn” spoken by a reporter who was interviewing a business owner in the district about the coming of the streetcar to the historic neighborhood. The person being interviewed was one of my favorite people in the district – Chef Sonya Jones – who owns and operates Sweet Auburn Bread Company, a bakery that serves fresh baked desserts and yummy breakfast sandwiches, located in the heart of the Sweet Auburn commercial district. Chef Sonya serves as a member of the Sweet Auburn Works board.

The reporter asked Chef Sonya about the impact of both the construction of the streetcar and what was expected as an aftermath when the project was completed next spring. Chef Sonya said she is excited about the streetcar project; that she hopes it will help to revitalize the area; and that she believes the construction is worthwhile.

The Sweet Auburn Works organization will definitely help to assure the success of the streetcar project. The goal now is for the board and committees of Sweet Auburn Works to be ready to respond to the opportunities presented by this major attraction.

I’m looking forward to a year from now when I awake to a new NPR Morning Edition story that tells the nation about the Sweet Auburn Works Main Street organization and its role in expanding economic vitality in the neighborhood.