Photos Cameron Flaisch & Andy Calvert
Change happens slowly. What was once a thriving residential district along the north side of the river and winding along 5th Avenue and West 3rd, over time gave way to a sleepy bypass to elsewhere. The houses did not vacate in one swoop and business did not suddenly evacuate. The streets did not erode overnight. By the same principle, returning what is now called the River District, to a new kind of glory is expected to take that same kind of time.
Truth be told, the first inklings of change began back in 2012 when Rome leaders established a master plan. Amanda Carter, Director of Downtown Rome, says at that time, the plan identified this block as an area that could enjoy some renovation and some forward thinking. To be fair, a good number of law firms and other professional establishments had seen success in the area, and have continued to see that security, and planners figured with some improvements, surely other businesses could extend that property. Carter says that unlike Broad Street, which is a historic district, the River District “can be approached differently. We call it the River District because it brings the center to the rivers, and acts as an extension of the Downtown vibe.”
The city, she says, plans to do some paving this spring immediately improving the accessibility of the district, but that the big changes will be seen when SPLOST money is spent adding parking, widening sidewalks for patio seating, adding lighting, and generally beautifying the area. Rome residents got a glimpse of how these plans might spur growth along this corridor on a balmy night in March.
For a four-hour time span, business owners worked with the city to showcase what they call Tactical Urbanism; parking spots became walkways and the sidewalks became sitting areas. Potted plants and parcels of turf lined the streets and café seating dotted the lanes. Tactical Urbanism is intended to bring thoughtful planning to revitalize neighborhoods, creating walkable spaces, accessible shops and an openness that seems from another era. Event organizers referred to their showcase as a Pop-Up Park, with food trucks, dog walks and even soft sofas ready for weary walkers.
Business owners share Carter’s vision for a reinvigorated streetscape. Nedra Manners owns one of the first retail spaces visitors see when they cross the bridge from Broad into the River District. Yellow Door Antiques set up shop three years ago this June, and she chose the spot intentionally. She explains that the rent was more affordable and she anticipated growth in the area. She is an enthusiastic proponent of change to the area. She believes that the changes will “improve the sidewalk, slow down the traffic and move the power lines to behind the buildings.”
She’s got dreams of brightly-colored murals on the sides of buildings, of people using the Roman Chariot to wend their way through all of town, enjoying food, art, shopping and more.
Barrie Turney recently moved her shop, Craft Yarn Co., from one side of Fifth Avenue to the other and is now a close neighbor of Manners’. Turney saw quick and sustainable growth in her boutique since opening in June, 2017. Less than a year later, she’s got an independent classroom, expanded inventory, and her new line of house dyed “Company Yarn,” in three weights.
Turney needed the bigger space for the size of her growing classes and events, and she participated in the Pop-Up Park as well. Like most businesses that evening, a table of refreshments and extended hours brought in the curious and the eager. Turney says when she left Rome for motorcycle mechanics school in 2008, Fifth Avenue was run down and to be avoided. The great price lured her to the district, and she has not looked back. She is so committed to the area that she signed a three-year lease on her new building and continues to expand her vision.
The Foundry Growler Station, owned by Gorg and Mindy Hubenthal, has also been embraced by the Rome community. The couple opened the beer and home-brewing shop just over a year ago and has gained a loyal following.
Perhaps this is a testament to Gorg’s relaxed vision. I didn’t do a bunch of research,” he says when explaining how he chose the location. “It was the right place to do what I wanted to do.”
For him, proximity to Broad Street was critical, as was parking. The paving and sidewalk improvements will only help businesses grow, a thought echoed by Turney, who believes the greater visibility of her new space will only prompt more visitors to that side of the river. He, Manners and Turney, as well as Carter, all express a certain hope and openness about what is possible on that side of the river. “The sky is the limit,” in Carter’s words. Galleries, restaurants and other retail spaces would all work well in this funky part of town.
Each of the owners referred to the new hotel opening as a boon to the area, and think Romans will take advantage of the walking bridge to have what Carter calls “a fuller experience” of the city. Even in their hope, though, they each remain practical, as business owners must be; they understand that change takes time. They see a bright future in the River District.