By Wil Crews
Opelika Observer

Main Street Alabama, a nonprofit that stresses public-private partnerships, broad community engagement and strategies that create jobs, spark new investments, attract visitors and spur growth, recently visited Opelika to review the state of the city’s downtown area and provided recommendations for a five-year plan.

Main Street sent a resource team that spent three days exploring Opelika’s main street and downtown; they presented their findings and recommendations in a press conference last Thursday. 

The resource team consisted five members: Mary Helmer, director of Main Street Alabama; Trisha Black, of Main Street Alabama; Courtney Bennet, of Montevallo Main Street; Randy Wilson, of Community Design Solutions; and Jay Schlinsog, of the Downtown Professionals Network.

Each member presented on one particular aspect of Main Street’s four-point approach to refreshing main streets across Alabama – organization, promotion, economic vitality and design.

“Economic development in the context of historic preservation, that is Main Street,” Schlinsog said.

Main Street surveyed 75 citizens to determine the strengths and weaknesses of downtown Opelika.

Citizens expressed strong support for Opelika’s bars, restaurants parking and the walkability of downtown. However, the city has a lack of diversity and accessibility, as well as empty and consolidated buildings, inconsistent business hours, closing too early and a lack of residential areas, citizens said.

To positively address these weaknesses, and to reinforce the strengths, Main Street organized a general five-year plan. The plan envisions downtown Opelika with more diverse, independent, small retail and restaurants, a market or grocery and more art and music related businesses.

Main Street recommends more live music, opportunities to exercise, more events that appeal to diversity, trails and accessible connectors to downtown, a farmers’ market and public art.

However, in order for Opelika to see these positive changes within five years, Black spoke about the need for promoting the downtown area.

Opelika’s city logo and the main street logo should look continuous and cohesive. The city should build consumer confidence during the pandemic by providing outdoor seating and cleaning materials at restaurants and shops, temperature checks, social media message updates and highlighting those messages on storefronts.

Additionally, downtown should rethink events and provide resources and business help on the Opelika Main Street website.

Schlinsog then spoke about the economic vitality of Opelika’s downtown.

“Even as we think about the future, when it comes to economic development, it’s really important that we hold on to those memories, those stories, that make this place special,” he said.

Schlinsog implored Opelika Main Street to focus supporting businesses, promoting opportunities and catalyzing investments.

Downtown Opelika can support business by maximizing public spaces, promoting small business assistance and recovery programs and providing customer friendly parking practices.

Opportunities can be bolstered through strengthening entrepreneurial support and training, mentoring sessions and contests to better position the area for recruiting new businesses.

Finally, Opelika should catalyze investments by promoting downtown housing and exploring partnership opportunities through state and federal tax credits.

Lastly, Wilson spoke about downtown Opelika’s design, with hopes to take it from “good to great.” To accomplish just that, Wilson recommended Opelika develop a common vision with a clear, collaborative goal between the private and public sector. The city should also address critical issues by refreshing the streetscapes, parks and open spaces as a start. Finally, Opelika should view downtown as the next major development in Opelika. This starts by providing businesses with urban planning that is streamlined, incentive based and safeguarded. 

To accomplish all of this, Wilson eluded to a strategy employed by English pop-girl group, The Spice Girls.

 “If you want to be my lover, you got to – abolish parking minimums and exclusionary single family zoning,” he said.

That might seem like simplified solution to a grandiose plan. But, it’s true that downtown Opelika is an already booming area that’s full of swiftly-achievable potential. Hopefully Main Street Alabama’s findings and recommendations will attract more businesses, friends and love to downtown Opelika.