Urban Living - Stone Mountain: Down but not out

DeKalb County city holds head high as it pushes revitalization

What's the first thing that comes to your mind when you read, "Stone Mountain"? The park? Memorial Drive, sprawl, unincorporated DeKalb County? Well, in case you didn't know it, there's a city of Stone Mountain nestled right up against the back of the mountain, just out the west gate, a city with a great Main Street and downtown area we call Stone Mountain Village. But if you've been to the city lately, you might be surprised by what's happened here in recent years. Stone Mountain has experienced a downturn that affected many towns in the '70s as a result of malls, the advent of suburbs and changing socioeconomic reasons. Downtown areas became less and less shopping centers of necessity and instead began a period of decline. Although Stone Mountain's proximity to the park, a tourist destination, delayed its descent for 30 years, it has followed a path similar to many other once vibrant downtown areas. The question is: What's the city doing to reverse the trend?

About 10 years ago the Main Street Stone Mountain program – a private nonprofit organization established to revitalize downtown through historic preservation, economic restructuring and promotional events – was established in the city. Through the leadership of some incredible and dedicated volunteers, the program has made great strides to organize and position itself as a road map to long-term success. To further ensure that success, City Council established the Downtown Development Authority, a public/private partnership, to take on downtown projects that boost revitalization efforts.

When I accepted the position of Main Street Stone Mountain and Downtown Development Authority director in August 2007, I heard the word "potential" a lot. Having never set foot in the city, I had this sense of separation from all the urban sprawl and blight that's so prevalent around Atlanta. There, in the middle of all that, sat a quaint little town of 7,500 people that so many would love to visit once its potential was realized. Great historic architecture, close to the park, nice sense of community – but what's being done to revitalize this jewel that's often overshadowed by its namesake, Stone Mountain Park?

While looking around Main Street may give you a sense that the city is failing, it does not come close to telling the story of what's going on behind the deteriorating façade. Of course, the first steps were to recognize that the city would not magically come back on its own, even with the efforts of a dedicated City Council. The projects in the works today are focused on the downtown area and turning it into one of the best in the metro area. Our first streetscape project in several decades is on the precipice of beginning construction after a one-year delay. This time next year we'll have new brick-paved sidewalks, lamps, benches and an overall pedestrian-friendly atmosphere. Phase II and phase III of the streetscape project will follow in coming years.

Main Street Stone Mountain has also worked with Mayor Gary Peet to become a Livable Centers Initiative community – Atlanta Regional Commission's program to encourage a link between transportation improvements and land use development to create sustainable, livable communities. This has created a blueprint on which the city can rely for years to come and unlocked funds for phase II of our streetscape redevelopment. We're also working to establish a tax allocation district that will encompass the entire downtown business district. These funds would be used by the Downtown Development Authority to take on projects that might be undesirable to developers yet necessary for the overall good of the city.

The city of Stone Mountain has potential, and the city and Main Street Stone Mountain are making significant strides to ensure that potential is realized. It's not a fix that will happen in a week or even a year, but within a year we'll begin to see all our hard work pay off. Come on out, maybe enjoy one of our festivals or one of our Walk and Wine Tours. You'll enjoy it now and you'll love it soon.

Steve Wells is executive director of Main Street Stone Mountain and the Downtown Development Authority.

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