The city of Elberton has a fresh vision for the future thanks to the creativity of a UGA student who spent the summer as a Georgia Downtown Renaissance Fellow at the UGA Carl Vinson Institute of Government.
Sam Nash Riggs, a graduate student in the UGA College of Environment and Design, worked with the city for 12 weeks on ideas and visual concepts to spur community development and growth. She presented her designs during a meeting at Elberton City Hall earlier this semester.
“Sam hit a home run—she’s given us a lot to think about,” said Daniel Graves, mayor of Elberton. “The rendering of the square shows where we can go, and we hope it will seed other ideas.”
The Downtown Renaissance Fellowship program was established in 2013 by the UGA Institute of Government, a unit of UGA Public Service and Outreach, and the Georgia Municipal Association to offer cities professional-caliber design assistance from UGA landscape architecture students. GMA, through its Georgia Cities Foundation, covers part of the cost of the fellowship while participating cities and other sponsors provide the remaining financial support.
This summer, Elberton received a $12,000 grant from the Riverview Foundation to support the fellowship. This nonprofit family foundation seeks to enrich the livability, conservation and stewardship of select communities and natural areas within six distinct watersheds across the Southeast.
“The Riverview Foundation has close familial ties to the University of Georgia and the communities of Athens and Elberton. We recognize how important urban design can be in creating more sociable, healthy, prosperous and attractive towns,” said Bruz Clark, Riverview’s executive director. “We are excited about our involvement in this work and the design concepts that have been generated through this partnership.”
A challenge for downtown Elberton, known as the “Granite Capital of the World,” is drawing people to its square, which sits a couple of blocks from the main artery into town. The picturesque square, anchored by the landmark Samuel Elbert Hotel, is ideal for community events and gatherings.
“We’re really interested in attracting visitors and making them feel welcome,” said Crystal Beebe, manager of Main Street Elberton, which regularly hosts special events on the square.
With that in mind, Riggs developed ideas to address traffic flow and create a more pedestrian-friendly environment. Suggestions include shrinking oversized travel lanes, extending the green space and improving alleyways leading to public parking lots. She incorporated the signature blue used in the city’s logo, existing metal streetscape elements and of course, granite, into the plan.
“I wanted the design to be something the people of Elberton could feel was their own, not just something off the rack,” Riggs said.
Amanda Lucas, general manager of Hicks Funeral Home, a downtown institution, was excited to see the focus on increasing pedestrian traffic.
“Elberton has so much to offer that other small towns don’t in terms of the shops and potential development. Business owners need that activation,” she said.
Having a vision for where the city wants to go will assist in the process, said Lanier Dunn, city manager.
“Although not ‘construction-level’ documents, the renderings can be used to easily develop functional plans to make infrastructure improvements happen more quickly. We can ‘see’ how the end result should look,” he said.
The Georgia Downtown Renaissance Fellowship gives city officials a road map to future success and UGA students hands-on experience. Since its launch 10 years ago, the program has created 27 plans for cities across the state.
Riggs, a trained horticulturist who has worked primarily in residential landscape design, credits the fellowship with igniting her passion for helping transform communities.
“It is a huge advantage for UGA students to be heavily invested in Public Service and Outreach. Getting real, practical experience while being encouraged to do your best and be creative is such a unique opportunity for exploration and professional growth,” she said.