Let's make downtown growth include all of 'community'

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One of the better things that could be happening to Jasper right now centers on a revitalization plan for the Town Creek area. I have been very proud of the whole downtown revival in Jasper. No doubt, there can be continued growth. 

I do have one caveat to that, but I'll get to that. 

John Boone, a principal in Orchestra Partners in Birmingham, recently spoke about the Town Creek project that firm is helping to advise Jasper on. This could lead to repurposing Sherer Auditorium (which is now only used for storage), landscaping Town Creek, and leading to possibly housing and trails to connect better to downtown shops and restaurants.

This project expands the downtown revitalization on the eastern end of downtown and makes use of a waterway that the city has never really paid as much attention to as it could. It did better than some cities, as there is an overlook at one spot and Alabama Power seemed to incorporate the river in its old office (now abandoned due to flooding). But I think this stream could become a wonderful accent and recreational walkway for downtown. 

Developers and Jasper Main Street, as well as other entities, have done well to capitalize on the trend of putting community, recreation and the shopping/dining experience back into downtown. We need that to not only improve commercially, but also as a community. This ties us together and brings visitors from outside the county to spend dollars. We should support this project. 

I asked him what local residents can do on the project, he urged people to invest in downtown, buying and shopping in that area and attending events downtown. "That isn't to say you can't go to the steakhouse near your house in rural Walker County. Please do that, too. They need revenue. But don't forget downtown Jasper exists," he said. 

"You don't want any sales tax or any profit going to some company from the Northeast, way out West or, God forbid, outside of America," he said. "Think about how you are spending your money." He said it is a challenge sometimes, as it is easy to go to a fast food place, pay less money and drive away quickly. "It is a cultural shift. I would beg people to think very critically about how they are spending their. "

He noted he talked to business owners downtown. One restaurant owner in downtown Jasper - whose own personal favorite food to eat was vegetables -  said the city needs more diverse food and beverage options, which will get people to think more about what they eat. 

Here I want to slightly offer an amendment in my support - but in an important way that doesn't negate overall support.

Some of us at the office began to talk about some of the businesses downtown, and many of us do support the local offerings. (And I also will go sometimes to chain offerings in the city.) 

As downtown grows, I sometimes step back and look at what is developing. And then I look immediately to the south and we see the bordering of a low income area that depends on walking to downtown for Dollar General, the After Hours clinic, and city and county governments. We are looking for more higher end housing, but it is hard to ignore that there is a diversity of people who can walk into downtown. 

And let's not forget that there are people in between. This is still rural Alabama, where some people don't have a large budget, are working class people who are trying to put children through school and college, and so on. They have some simpler tastes and sometimes even simpler budgets - not down to their last dollar, but they are more blue plate than blue blood. 

Sometimes, the offerings are either out of reach or may just be something one can have once or twice a week. And, lets face it, our work habits these days requires a quick meal, hence the name, "fast food." That doesn't mean it has to be distasteful to look at; I always thought Hoover had some great zoning laws that led to fast food establishments to keep signs low to the ground. 

As we develop downtown and grow community, we need to be reminded that "community" is a  gathering of diverse segments, of all economic levels, races and creeds, otherwise it is not community but segmentation. Not that anyone means anything differently, but sometimes that goal has to be reminded least we get away with habits favoring our neighbors and friends. 

I will say an unmentionable but surrounding smaller communities will nod their heads in agreement: Sometimes the more urbane, cultured elements of Jasper - which has given us many enhancements - has sometimes run away with itself at the expense of inclusion of the lower income segments of our population. In a county like Walker County, the "have nots" usually do not point out these things to the "haves," so it doesn't get addressed. And sometimes in Jasper, that has led to some imbalance. 

In this case, I think we should have the great local restaurants that downtown has made its reputation on, as well as the nice lawyer offices and historic buildings. But we must work harder, in a tasteful manner, to include those who are low income and lower middle class. We should have some fast food or basic blue plate offerings that are affordable to the masses. There should be a catering to those running to lunch and back from work. And, yes, we have some options now, but that should be emphasized, and some exclusive places for just that type of offering should be available. 

Fortunately, we do have the Dollar General downtown for the benefit of some; some cities don't even have that to offer in a way that some can walk up. If we are looking at more housing opportunities downtown, we have to address some more basic needs. Somehow or another, we still need another grocery store downtown. We still need housing of all different income levels made available to allow walking distance to basic needs. We need to continue the sidewalk projects - and maybe even bike trails - to make it easier to travel. 

We are very fortunate to have had a major revitalization in Jasper that continues with the Town Creek project. As we keep building on that success, we now need to redouble efforts to make sure "community" is just that, and includes all of us as we lift ourselves up to a better living standard downtown. 

Ed Howell is the news editor of the Daily Mountain Eagle. He can be reached at ed.howell@mountaineagle.com.