“It’s the people who make New Albany strong,” Union County Development Association Executive Director Phil Nanney said Thursday.
And Nanney believes that the community can be even stronger through the sharing of ideas and concerns.
That is one of the main purposes of the Business 2 Business roundtable held this past week by the UCDA. This is the second of what is planned to be quarterly lunches (in this case, breakfast) sponsored by Toyota Motor Manufacturing Mississippi.
The roundtable featured a panel of local leaders who provided information about ongoing projects and took questions from those present.
“It’s an opportunity to make New Albany better,” Nanney said.
He expressed some disappointment that more merchants and others from downtown did not attend (part of the reason 8:30 a.m. was chosen was to make it easier for merchants) but was pleased that the goal of having plenty of good questions and interaction had been achieved.
“New Albany is the best-kept secret treasure chest in the state,” he said. “When New Albany does something, it does it right. But we are always looking for chinks in our armor. We’re looking for ideas.”
Mayor Tim Kent opened up the discussion.
“We have one problem that’s a good one to have: parking,” he said. “We have looked at some solutions, it’s nothing that money wouldn’t fix.”
More realistically, the mayor told the group that Sugaree’s owner Mary Jennifer Russell has applied for a grant to enlarge the library parking lot. This would mean filling in the ditch, connecting downtown to Tanglefoot Trail and the farmers’ market. “We hope we can at least get the merchants to park there,” Kent said.
He noted that the trail is bringing more people from as far away as Wisconsin and that many drive from Memphis so we need to be able to accommodate them and involve them in other things the community has to offer.
Mike Staten asked the mayor about underground utilities for the city. “I know it is expensive,” he said, and Kent replied that the cost would be $20 million and there are not any grants for that.
When asked about the possibility of constructing a multi-level parking garage behind City Hall, Kent said the cost for that would be $5 million.
Another questioner wondered if the city could establish a long-range plan for a parking facility and to allocate funds. The mayor said the city does have a comprehensive plan “but it doesn’t address parking per se.”
The plan does provide for an inner loop road system, however, that would connect Barkley Drive to Munsford and Martintown and Bratton and, eventually, Hwy. 15.
Nanney talked about that.
“We met with railroad executives a year ago,” he said. They plan to have a double set of rails from Birmingham to Memphis, and already have the right-of-way to do it.
“We don’t know how that will affect us,” Nanney said. New Albany gets 22-28 trains through a day, partly added to by the switching yard.
Dealing with the railroad can be a challenge, he added. As Mayor Kent said, “Their thing is we were there first, and they were.”
Nanney would return to the loop situation later in the meeting.
Next, Sugaree’s owner Russell, who also owns the land where the Biscuits and Jam Farmers’ Market has been held, spoke.
“This is the fourth year of the farmers’ market on my property,” she said. “Lots of side projects are starting to form.”
Russell and others are working on a variety of tourism and other grants, with a variety of local organizations involved.
“We got a grant in 2012 for $3,000 from the Appalachian Regional Commission,” she said. “It taught us how to document economic impact.” They were able to document a 25-percent increase in business on second Saturdays during the farmers’ market when arts and crafts were added. She did note that it has been hard to get data from downtown merchants concerning sales; they have to be confidential.
“But my retail business was up 45 percent the first year,” she said.
Last year, she got a $20,000 grant from several agencies including the EPA, ARC and USDA for a technical assistance workshop. “I scrambled for six weeks to get the right people there,” she said and ended up with about eight agencies represented.
“We are now following through on grants,” she said, and some involve striping the library parking lot and adding wayfaring signs for the benefit of visitors to New Albany.
Main Street Association Manager Vickie Duke talked about growth downtown.
“We had 50 percent vacancy (downtown) 10 years ago. We have nine percent now,” she said, adding we are one of the lowest among the 50-plus organization communities.
“We appreciate a lot of entrepreneurs who have opened downtown, along with Sappington’s, Van-Atkins and those who have been here for years,” she said.
A recently added program for downtown is the availability of a new façade grant to help pay merchants to improve building exteriors. “It’s first come, first serve,” she said, with applications available at her office or online.
Main Street also does a lot of events downtown such as the new Live at Noon this past Saturday. It will be held again on the next three third Saturdays of the month and includes free music, appetizers and special discounts for downtown businesses. It is held at the Tanglefoot Trailhead.
Duke added that Main Street regularly sends business mail-outs to those in an interested database and they are working with the UCDA to prepare for the Great American Cleanup May 2. “We will go into schools and teach kids about litter, and about recycling,” she said.
Bo Collins commented that Main Street has been good from a banking perspective. “A strong Main Street gives people confidence, they’re more likely to invest downtown, take a risk,” the BNA Bank president said.
Mayor Kent interjected that adding residential housing upstairs downtown really helped a lot with vacancies. “It really took off,” he said.
“We have 19 apartments downtown,” he said. “They stay full, there’s usually a waiting list. We do have room for more,” Duke added.
Collins continued to say that he is proud to show New Albany off to out-of-towners. “It has a good school system, great hospital, park and rec, museum and arts,” he said, but added, “One thing I see, we are short on housing inventory. That’s a problem.”
Mayor Kent agreed, but also noted that the local unemployment rate is good, tied with Lafayette County to be one of the lowest in the state.
Nanney then got back to the idea of a traffic loop.
“The UCDA, city and county are looking into an inner loop, we’re specifically calling the Glenfield Overpass Project,” he said. It will, as noted, connect Barkley Drive to Munsford to Martintown and Bratton Roads to Hwy. “The cost of the overpass is $22-24 million,” Nanney said.
The overpass will be valuable in several ways, Nanney said.
He first mentioned the safety issue. He said 1,100 students have to cross the railroad every day to get to the elementary school. Also, nearly all emergency services are on this side of track, would means they would have to go around and up Hwy. 15 if the rail line is blocked. Then there is the issue of economic development, getting to Glenfield and its industrial park.
Obviously the city does not have the kind of resources needed, so Nanney is starting a petition system to garner state and federal support. “The pathway is to gather community support, send to DOT, Jackson, then Washington, get congress to get money to the U.S. transportation department, and back here,” he said.
Nanney passed a copy of the petition around and most or all signed it.
He next wants to get the petitions out to the general public. “We’re starting the petition process today,” he said. “The thing that will carry this is votes.”
As he said earlier, it’s the people who make New Albany strong.
The next Business to Business lunch will probably be held this summer.
Tourism and marketing director Sean Johnson, who was scheduled to be on the panel, did not attend.