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Downtown revitalization begins

At the Strand lunch meeting, from left, Zach Mannheimer, Bub Gideons, First National Bank & Trust President Glen Davis.

“We’re gonna bring back that theater.”

And that, according to Zach Mannheimer, is the beginning for Atmore’s downtown revitalization.

Mannheimer is principal community planner with McClure Engineering Company, a Clive, Iowa-based civil engineering firm. He works within “Creative Placemaking for rural communities with the goal of helping them achieve economic and population growth through cultural and entrepreneurial amenities, concepts, and catalytic projects,” he is quoted as saying.

According to the National Endowment for the Arts. “Creative Placemaking is an evolving field of practice that intentionally leverages the power of the arts, culture and creativity to serve a community’s interest while driving a broader agenda for change, growth and transformation in a way that also builds character and quality of place.”

Now that his position and what he does are defined, what was Mannheimer doing in Atmore Wednesday through Friday, December 6 through 8?

He was meeting with people, assessing Atmore, and formulating a plan to bring success back to downtown.

Bringing him to Atmore is a joint effort of the Pride of Atmore Committee and the City of Atmore. The committee’s original plan was to save the Strand Theatre.

Earlier this year, Pride Chairman Bub Gideons and committee member Foster Kizer had a chance meeting with Mannheimer in Tuskegee. Then the project evolved. Why just the Strand? Why not downtown? A Creative Placemaking grant from Delta Regional Authority enabled the committee to bring Mannheimer to Atmore last week.

On Wednesday evening, he met with 18 members of a steering committee.

“The theater is the catalyst that brings back downtown,” he said.

As he was getting a feel for the condition of the city, Mannheimer asked about the number of blighted buildings, as well as the number of occupied and unoccupied buildings, especially storefronts.

Then he asked what the steering committee would like to see in Atmore, what’s missing in Atmore.

Suggestions varied – plays (traveling regional plays, such as Shakespeare), a jewelry store, a shoe store, something for 30- to 40-year-olds, a bakery, a dog park, music and electronics stores, upstairs apartments in downtown two-story buildings, a bike trail, a sports bar, kids interaction, more daycare, a museum, a Christian bookstore.

Mannheimer noted that retail such as a jewelry store and a shoe store are increasingly accessed online rather than in person, especially among millennials.

The next morning, Mannheimer had breakfast with members of the Industrial Development Board and the West Escambia Utilities Board.

Later, Mannheimer held a community meeting in the Strand. The lunch meeting, open to the public, was attended by 87 people. Two of the people attending were Jay Mittal, PhD, MBA, Associate Professor and Director, Master of Community Planning (MCP) Program at Auburn, and graduate student Tram Vo.

At the meeting, Mannheimer began by talking about growing a community through cultural environment and the arts.

“Companies want to see a revitalized downtown,” he said. “You have to meet the quality of life.”

He made the following points:

* No more than 20 percent of capital for the project should come from public dollars.

* Every business in Atmore needs to be part of this process.

* Keep in mind that 67 percent of millennials buy online.

* Don’t tear down buildings on Main Street. Revitalize them. Create housing upstairs.

* Mobile and Pensacola will grow so much, they will push people out.

* Think 30 years from now.

As he had done the night before with the steering committee, Mannheimer asked this group what they’d like to see in Atmore. The answers: symphony, art museum, brewery, yoga studio, bike trails, dog park, better childcare, more comprehensive medical care, civic center, outdoors stores, expanded programs for senior residents, free downtown Internet, some places to go for young people, bars, cigar bars, improved schools.

Then he asked what they wanted the Strand to be – live entertainment, jazz, recording studio and a live music venue, dinner and a show, children’s programming, children’s birthday parties.

Mannheimer said there are things that could be done to supplement the Strand, for instance, classical and seasonal movies, and events in the front lobby.

The challenge or opportunity, he said, is making other venues support the Strand. The empty building beside the Strand was discussed as a possible area for a bar that could supplement the theater’s bottom line.

“What we’re going to give you is not a study,” he said. “It’s an action plan. It’s up to you guys to do it.”

“For so long, we’ve done nothing,” Kizer said. “We’ve got to take the first step. Why not here? Why not now?”