March 17th, 2010
01:42 PM ET

Building up America: Down by the riverside

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Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

I have history in Montgomery. I began my TV reporting career here almost 30 years ago at WSFA; chasing down house fires, school disputes, angry city council members, and hopeful business owners. And even back then, people were talking about how downtown needed to be rebuilt.

Dexter Avenue, the main street stretching up to the historic, domed Capitol Building, was struggling to keep afloat even back then. And every few years it seemed some businessman, or civic group, or developer would launch yet another new project to bring it roaring back to life. Only it didn’t happen. The money was spent, the improvements were made, and the decay continued.

Now, however, a few blocks away the most aggressive and coordinated effort I’ve ever seen to reclaim downtown is picking up steam.

“How y’all doing?” Bert Miller is a tall African American man whose big voice booms over the noisy supper crowd at Dreamland Barbeque right in the middle of the reclamation zone. And his hearty laugh leaves no doubt how he is doing. “We couldn’t have asked for a better location. Business is good. We’ve been very blessed.”

Centered on the riverfront area, the effort is anchored by the stadium which is home to the popular minor league baseball team, The Montgomery Biscuits. (Yes, there is a baseball team named for a breakfast bread.) Building out from the stadium, city, county, local developers, and businesses are taking dilapidated, forgotten spaces and transforming them with hotels, restaurants, receptions halls, luxury apartments, and a Hank Williams museum. The legendary country music star was born in Alabama, and is buried not far from downtown Montgomery. The museum even has the car in which he fell asleep, and never woke up again.

It is a modest effort aimed largely at two things: providing added value and attractions for any conventioneers that come to town, and drawing some locals back to the city center. But it seems to be working. As the Chamber of Commerce and others help promote more events from concerts to fun-runs to networking parties for young professionals, the beleaguered old downtown is taking small but measureable steps back toward better days even in this bad economy.

It is, to be frank, the most promising effort I’ve seen in decades to build a better future for this part of town. And like I said, Montgomery and I have history.

Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Filed under: Building Up America • Tom Foreman
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