Turning downtowns around

Rhonda Broadhead and Sherry Colburn are in the business of making people beautiful in historic downtown Calera.

The sisters opened Sisters II Hair and Tanning Salon 11 years ago along Alabama Highway 25, and for 11 years they’ve had front row seats to downtown decline.

“We’ve seen what’s come in and what hasn’t,” Colburn said over the hum of a blow dryer. “We got the buildings … just not enough businesses in them.”

Colburn echoes the sentiments of many who walk along the sidewalks of Shelby County’s downtowns and yearn to see the bustling districts of yesteryear, but with a modern twist.

Plans are afoot to revive downtown districts in the cities of Calera and Montevallo. Since the start of the year, the Calera Planning Commission has hosted town hall meetings to elicit public comments that would mold a downtown revitalization plan. The comments have since been incorporated into a draft of the city’s comprehensive plan, which was released last month.

“Participants are anxious for a bypass to remove heavy truck traffic from downtown,” the draft plan states. “Frequent rail traffic on the CSX line crossing Highway 25 regularly stops traffic coming in and out of downtown. Parking is limited; and not enough reinvestment is taking place in downtown Calera.”

Residents also proposed adequate parking for customers and employees, the preservation of downtown’s historic architecture and a greenway trail connecting downtown to neighborhoods east of Interstate 65 and westward to Oliver Park and Calera High School.

Mayor-elect Jon Graham said alleviating commercial traffic is vital to renewing downtown. The city recently acquired funds for improvements along Highway 31, and is seeking federal funds to build the bypass. Graham said the city has not yet drawn up a detailed cost analysis for the long-term plan.

“When we get the truck traffic out, we can begin to clean up and beautify downtown,” he said. “Calera is a beautiful town, and it has a lot of potential.”

Downtown Montevallo

Mayor Ben McCrory sat behind his desk at Montevallo City Hall last week reviewing a $35,000 downtown redevelopment plan that depicts the city’s Main Street lined with breathtaking landscaping, sidewalk traffic lights and a spacious walkway that connects Orr Park and downtown to the University of Montevallo.

The city hopes to pay for the improvements with federal money it has not yet secured — an estimated $5 million grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, perhaps better known as the economic stimulus package.

“Our largest objective is to help the downtown merchants and to encourage people to visit Montevallo,” McCrory said. “We have a lot of things happening around us like American Village, the Alabama National Cemetery and the new Parks Trail, and we want to attract unique shops downtown to give our visitors something to see … make it look like a village town.”

If the city were to receive the grant money, the project would begin within 120 days, McCrory said. The project also includes widening sidewalks and streets, moving low-hanging power lines underground and moving water and sewer pipes under Main Street and placing them under sidewalks.

The recent completion of the city’s Merchant’s Alley project marked the first phase of the downtown plan, McCrory said. Merchant’s Alley, located on Valley Street, prevents downtown merchants from parking on Main Street and opens spaces to customers. The $100,000 project was funded by a Housing and Urban Development grant, the city of Montevallo and Shelby County.

McCrory hopes to embark on the second phase of the city’s downtown plan before the end of his first term.

“Our plan is shovel-ready,” McCrory said. “We could start tomorrow if we were approved, but it’s going to take patience on the merchants’ side, and it’s going to take patience on the city’s side.”