City close to funding Town Creek redevelopment plan

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City officials appear ready to give $40,000 toward a redevelopment plan along Town Creek which will involve a successful Birmingham firm and could also lead to renovations and new use for the long neglected Sherer Auditorium. 

Mike Putman, executive director of Jasper Main Street, presented an $80,000 proposal for the Town Creek project at the Oct. 30 work session of the Jasper City Council. The proposal was put together by Orchestra Partners (https://www.orchestra-partners.com), a Birmingham real estate development firm.

The firm concentrates on downtown Birmingham. The Birmingham Business Journal said the five-year-old company "has played a major role in the continued revitalization of Birmingham through projects in downtown, Five Points South and Avondale.

"This would be its first foray out of Birmingham," he said. 

Putman said their work includes Founders Station, Parkside, and the former Woolworth (which will open next week as The HIVE), and they are now about to work on the power steam plan across from Railroad Park. He added that company co-founder Hunter Renfroe has said essentially he is ready to deal with "a community that is not so politicized."

Orchestra Partners toured the site with Mayor David O'Mary, representatives from the Walker Area Community Foundation (WACF) and other officials. "(Renfroe) looked at several properties in town, and he zeroed in on the creek," Putman said, noting most downtowns don't have that. 

Renfroe proposed to develop Town Creek starting at the Jasper City Board of Education/Sherer Auditorium area and go down to Radial Tires, Putman said, noting the council had a copy of the proposal. Potential stakeholders have already toured the area about a month ago to see if it was appropriate. 

Putman said the development would be "to add to what we have already started at what I call Town Creek Park. That is that park right across the street from Joe Downs office and right across the stream from the board of education and the school. That should be finished soon."

To fund the plan, Putman said $10,000 has been given from Jasper Main Street, and $30,000 from the WACF. "What we're asking from the city is the remaining $40,000," he said. 

Putman noted Main Street has never shelved any of its plans in the past and that the plan, while not happening overnight, was still quite doable. 

"If we could just get Sherer - to me, that is the jewel for downtown," he said. "I don't think we are going to get it down just by sitting there and looking at it, saying 'I wish somebody would do this or I wish somebody would do that.'"

If work for the process is started in December, it would be completed by July, he said. 

"You get the plan, you get the proforma. You get help with HTCs (historic tax credits). We get help with curating tenants," he said. "They don't give you a plan and say, 'See you later.' And they've done this so many times in downtown Birmingham." 

Council President Council President Danny Gambrell, who has previously expressed an interest in finding a use for Sherer Auditorium, wondered if it can be considered a historical building or is in a historical district. He said it was built in the 1930s and has beautiful rocks as part of its construction. 

"Let's take a building like that, which is a very historical building, and fix it. But I do know it would cost a lot of money," Gambrell said. 

Putman agreed it is a historical building and would be available for an HTC. 

Gambrell said the park across from Joe Downs office was federally funded, but Putman said the city could do work on it. City Attorney Russ Robertson said the project would have to be recreational and could not be sold to put an office on it. 

"That's just a renovation. That's just a facelift," Putman said. 

Putman said the overall plan would be done in phases, noting Sherer - which would be a large project - could be done as a first phase. "This is not a one-year, two-year process. This is a multi-year process," he said. 

He said Renfroe indicated the overall "ballpark" price for the plan's work would be $5 million, with "a lot of it" involving Sherer. 

Robertson said he was part of a group which went to Washington, D.C., several years ago and at that the plan was in the ballpark of $2.5 million to $3 million, although he said it was a nice plan with an outside elevator where one could see out. Putman said again Main Street currently has some potential stakeholders. 

O'Mary said he has spent some considerable time with Main Street officials at the project's viability, saying many players would have to be involved.

"I can tell you, Jasper is on the radar screen of a lot of folks," he said, adding the old axiom, "You have to spend money to make money."

He said when Putman told him the $80,000 price tag, "I have to tell you, it kind of made me slide back from the table." But after learning more details, including the work done by Orchestra Partners, he said a plan would be needed to to have any chance for the project. 

He also pointed to the track record of Jasper Main Street. 

"Without the revitalization of downtown, I really don't think our city would be where it is at today," O'Mary said. "We would still be far back in our development."

While he said $40,000 is "a lot of money," he also said it would sound strange to say the city would have a "windfall driven by COVID." However, due to the pandemic, the city did not spend money on programs would have otherwise. 

"This year, with all the headwinds, we're going to have the best year we have had in the history of this city," O'Mary said. "Our revenues are up nicely. Our expenses are down."

He said as a result, "we can easily afford" the $40,000, and he recommended the allocation as it is "the right thing to do."

O'Mary said, "I believe it is something we will look at two or three years down the road and look back at, and say, 'Wow, we made a good investment.' To miss this opportunity would be penalizing the potential of our city. Clearly we can afford it, and it has my endorsement." 

Putman said in turning in his end-of-the-year numbers for Main Street, he pointed out "our numbers, just downtown numbers, are up in this year with real estate sales."