I was sitting at a sidewalk table enjoying a beer with an old friend Friday night before the UT/LSU game. She doesn’t live downtown, but she’s been coming longer than I’ve lived here. The patio was shoulder-to-shoulder with hometown fans and visitors alike. Along the sidewalks, dozens of folks were out for a crisp fall night on the town. She looked around and said “I can’t believe our little downtown has made it.” I knew what she meant. Less than 10 years ago, if you saw a couple walking up the sidewalk a few blocks away they stuck out on the quiet street, and there was a good chance you knew them. Nowadays, if you’re lucky, you spot their faces in a crowd. But I couldn’t quite share her optimism that we’ve made it. In fact, these days I’m a little worried.
It’s easy enough, on a beautiful autumn evening downtown, to imagine that all is well. And it is a far cry from the turn of the century when it was more common to hear downtown referred to as moribund than cosmopolitan. Over the past few years, the center city has seemed to defy trends where growth and prosperity are concerned. But much of that is due to deals that were struck and financing secured before the country’s financial meltdown began. There’s no doubt that we’ve seen a lot of success. But people seem to forget the projects that didn’t make it in under that wire.
One by one, I’ve watched multi-million dollar projects fall. The corner of Gay Street and Jackson Avenue was expected to become the site of the first ground-up development downtown had seen in decades. The plans for that $22 million condominium project finally bit the dust a couple of years ago, with the city holding the bag on what is now a municipal parking lot. The following year, developers pulled the plug on the proposed 21-story Sentinel Tower slated for the corner of State Street and Church Avenue. It’s now a vacant lot with a for sale sign. And earlier this year came confirmation that the $78 million Metropolitan Plaza project envisioned for Henley Street across from the Convention Center has gone bust. Smaller projects like renovations to the Elliot and the Glencoe buildings adjacent to the Sentinel Towers site sit mothballed. Maybe that’s why, when I read this past summer about plans moving forward for an apartment complex proposed for the parking lot on State Street slated to become a development known as Marble Alley, I couldn’t get enthused. I wish the project the best. But downtown, which has seemed to hang tough during the economic downfall of recent years, is by no means immune to it. The loss of over $100 million in proposed development is proof of that.
Goodness knows I’ve been a believer in downtown. It’s been wonderful to feel optimistic and watch that conviction validated over the past decade through the growth in both population and new businesses in the neighborhood. But what concerns me now is that what I’ve watched play out is, well, playing out—that the recession is catching up with us. While we have a freshly refurbished 100 Block of Gay Street, there are empty storefronts that were alive only a couple of years ago. Just last week I noticed that one of our few retailers, Eleven, had a sign up advertising its store closing sale. The Old City’s Jig & Reel, former home to Manhattan’s, has a fresh coat of paint and seems to be off to a great start. But across the street, one of downtown’s most iconic and longstanding establishments, Patrick Sullivan’s, stands shuttered. While new grocery stores like Publix and Trader Joe’s are set to launch elsewhere, downtown’s only meat counter quietly closed only a few weeks after it opened.
Right now, a lot of people are worried. They’re worried about their jobs, their mortgages, their retirement. I’m worried, too. While I sat with my friend last week on Gay Street, protesters were sitting in Krutch Park. The offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement had marched only a week earlier amid the tight knots of regular patrons of First Friday. Downtown it seems—almost a poster child for economic development over the past decade—is no less susceptible to economic pessimism than anywhere else. And neither am I. While downtown has never been completely without desperation, I see it in the faces of more than our homeless nowadays. And I see the financial conditions that have slowly taken their toll across the country creeping into my neighborhood. Last I checked, those protesters haven’t left. And the issues that brought them here don’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon.