Downtown business districts in some northwest Georgia cities are getting a face-lift, thanks to the University of Georgia and funding from the Lyndhurst Foundation in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Chickamauga, Chatsworth, Rossville, Lookout Mountain and Ringgold are among the communities benefiting from the expertise of UGA faculty and students working with the Downtown Renaissance Partnership program in the Carl Vinson Institute of Government.
Among the projects:
• A historic rail depot in Chickamauga has been converted into a downtown Welcome Center;
• An old textile mill in Rossville is being studied as a possible site for social and business ventures;
• The grounds around the duck pond at the John Ross house in Rossville are being updated. A log cabin on the grounds, the former home of Cherokee Indian Chief John Ross, is a National Historic Landmark;
• A new stage is going up in Chatsworth, and the city is making streetscape improvements to link the stage and surrounding park to downtown; and
• The city of Lookout Mountain is developing a new town center development concept.
The projects, intended to attract more new businesses and customers to rural downtowns, were developed by UGA students and faculty, led by Danny Bivins, a senior public service associate at the Institute of Government, a UGA Public Service and Outreach unit.
“I don’t think it ever would’ve happened without Danny Bivins and the Carl Vinson Institute,” said Betts Berry, a cattle farmer and lifelong resident of Chickamauga. “We might’ve talked about it. They showed us the community’s potential and what people were interested in.”
The Downtown Renaissance Partnership is a 4-year-old collaboration between the Institute of Government and the Georgia Municipal Association and the Georgia Cities Foundation. The partnership includes intensive three-month fellowships for students in UGA’s landscape architecture program as well as other learning opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in the university’s College of Environment and Design.
Since 2015, the Chattanooga-based Lyndhurst Foundation has granted the institute $200,000 to fund projects in northwest Georgia.
“Over several decades, the Lyndhurst Foundation has supported numerous projects in Chattanooga aimed at improving the quality and impact of good urban design while also enhancing public participation in the community planning and design process,” said Benic M. “Bruz” Clark, president and treasurer of the Lyndhurst Foundation. “We feel extremely fortunate to be able to work with Danny Bivins and his team to expand this body of work in northwest Georgia. The results to date have been impressive, and we have really enjoyed our association with UGA staff and the students who are turning community aspirations into reality.”
The projects evolve through a series of meetings with people who live in the local communities. The local stakeholders drive the process and the conceptual designs. Bivins said he also works with other state and regional partners to assist with the planning process, such as representatives from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, Northwest Georgia Regional Commission and the Small Business Development Center, another UGA Public Service and Outreach unit.
The community relationships are valuable to the students working on the projects as well, said Doug Pardue, an associate professor in the College of Environment and Design, who leads an Urban Design Studio class. Students receive hands-on experience in downtown conceptual design, strategic planning and project implementation.
As a master’s student in landscape architecture, Dan Shinkle worked in Chatsworth in 2016 as a Renaissance Fellow. He provided Mayor Tyson Haynes with plans for a new stage at the city park, a streetscape connecting the park to downtown and plans to repurpose Chatsworth’s vacant downtown industrial site. By the time Shinkle graduated last May, the city was pouring new sidewalks he had designed.
Other projects underway include the restoration of a historic cemetery in Chickamauga and a regional trail system. The program “has jump-started projects in Chickamauga that the community would never have done,” Berry said. “Anything we do downtown encourages our merchants and small businesses. I think it makes a tremendous difference.”