VALDOSTA — Less than an hour west of Valdosta sits Thomasville, a town known for its Rose Festival, historic plantations and booming downtown.
From bagel shops and bakeries to antique stores and art galleries, Thomasville is a not-so-hidden gem of Southwest Georgia. The small town brings more than 100,000 people — some from Valdosta — to its many events held in the downtown area.
“What we want are people like us where we can sit down, have a drink, hang out and socialize with other people,” said Deidre Thompson, owner of Perfectly Priscilla. “I love Thomasville. You could go there and make a day of it.”
Thomasville, which already has a vineyard and a bicycle and brew shop, was also almost the home to Valdosta’s newest brewery, Georgia Beer Co.
“At that time, Thomasville was our second choice and we let (Valdosta) know that,” said Chris Jones, Georgia Beer Co. director of business. “Valdosta, for its size, was the last city in the state that didn’t have a brewery. They wanted one and we provided one.”
Thompson said Valdosta’s downtown, however, doesn’t compare to Thomasville, a town with a third of the population of Valdosta.
As a new downtown Valdosta business owner, she hopes its many issues can be resolved so her business’ new home can thrive.
When Thompson decided to bring her online national brand, Perfectly Priscilla, to a brick-and-mortar, she thought downtown Valdosta was the best option.
“Downtown was more inclusive with our brand,” Thompson said. “I don’t foresee our brand being in a mall. We just felt like it gave us a chance to design and create an experience that would have been difficult in a mall setting.”
She opened her storefront boutique Oct. 6.
Perfectly Priscilla was one of six businesses downtown gained, said Ellen Hill, Main Street director.
According to Main Street numbers, downtown boasts 11 cafes and restaurants, 26 retail stores, 12 arts and entertainment services and venues, seven churches, 13 government buildings, 54 professional services — 12 of those are in the 100 N. Patterson St. shared office space —, 11 financial service businesses, seven auto repair and sales businesses and 115 loft apartments.
Hill also said there are 13 vacant spaces in Downtown Valdosta from Magnolia to Hill and Ashley to Toombs.
Three Valdosta Daily Times staffers took to the streets of downtown, going through walkable areas from Lee Street to Oak Street and Magnolia Street to Hill Avenue.
According to the count of the core downtown area done by the Daily Times team, there were 35 empty storefronts and inactive businesses — some, such as 207 N. Ashley St., have a “For Lease” sign in the front window, but Hill said Main Street doesn’t consider it vacant because people live on the second floor of the building.
For the most part, the staffers' business count aligned with Main Street's business listing only because there are not many businesses by the Jim Beck Overpass.
The SunLight team found 10 restaurants — only half of those are open for evenings, and one is open until closing time of 2 a.m. — 26 retail, 47 professional services, five auto and repair shops, 11 government buildings, six churches, 13 arts and entertainment and event spaces and 11 financial institutions.
When comparing numbers with Main Street, it listed Book and Table twice under dining and retail and Steel Magnolia's as dining and event space. They also did not list Yoga Central, which we included in our event space numbers.
Other discrepancies between both sets of numbers are because 12 businesses are outside the range of the core downtown area.
We don't include our own residential count because the staffers focused on commercial.
For 100 N. Patterson St., a shared office space, we added the 12 businesses inside to professional services, which is also according to a business list sent by Main Street.
“There are buildings that are dilapidated and falling apart,” Thompson said. “That’s where you’re getting these law offices because they’re the ones who can afford to fix these buildings.”
Hill said it’s a balancing act between having professional services, which employ large numbers of people, and having restaurants and retail, which bring bigger numbers of customers downtown.
“You want that daytime population to eat lunch and run their errands here,” Hill said. “Then of course you want that after 5 crowd to come down as well. It’s a really hard balancing act for any downtown.”
Thompson said professional services, which far surpass retail and restaurants in Valdosta combined, don’t create a lively downtown.
She said there also isn’t enough parking for the professional service employees, even though Hill said there are more than 1,000 parking spaces downtown.
“They need more boutiques and restaurants,” Thompson said. “They don’t need more professional businesses or housing.”
Her employees have nowhere to park — parallel street parking is a two-hour limit — and there’s nowhere for her customers to go after they shop at Perfectly Priscilla.
According to an Instagram poll done by Main Street, people who answered didn’t want another law office or hair salon.
They wanted a brick-oven pizza place, a coffee shop and more boutiques.
The quaint, vibrant downtown has worked in Thomasville. Thompson said it’s because Thomasville has been working at it longer and putting money into it for it to thrive.
Tale of Downtown Thomasville
It’s the lack of what Thomasville doesn’t have — four vacant buildings — and what it has, which include 27 restaurants, 61 professional services and 91 retail shops, that makes it different from Valdosta.
One of those 179 downtown businesses is Al Dixon Men’s Wear, a six-decade-old establishment.
"We are definitely a destination now, which we worked hard to be," said Ron Dixon, owner of the South Broad Street business named and started after his father, Al Dixon.
His store draws customers from all over North Florida and South Georgia — 40 percent of his business is from out-of-town customers.
Dixon said his store's downtown location is among the reasons his business has been successful, but he faces the same issues with his downtown as Valdosta business owners face: there’s not enough parking, and there are too many office spaces.
Downtown Thomasville serves as an economic engine to the community and continues to see growth, said April Norton, City of Thomasville Main Street and business development director.
"A strong revitalization effort includes public investment, which spurs private investment connecting people and place," Norton said.
Norton said completion of the Ritz Amphitheater in 2017 brought a lot of opportunity for the community, downtown and The Bottom/Creative District, providing an active park for day-to-day park use, events and entertainment, connecting generations, increasing activity in the downtown, activating storefronts, giving life to dilapidated buildings, restoring the historic architecture and creating jobs.
In 2018, downtown Thomasville had more than $7.5 million in public and private investment. It also saw a net increase of 19 new or expanded businesses, creating 130 new job opportunities.
"There has been an aggressive effort in activating spaces with a unique mix of shops, restaurants and offices in downtown, filling storefronts, which are proven in our statistics for 2018,” Norton said. “The Main Street office continues to see an increased demand for a storefront downtown, so it's rare to have a storefront stay vacant for long."
What's to Come
Downtown Valdosta has made strides, to be fair.
Hill said the private investment money it has been taking in since 1998 has grown since 2017 from $50 million to $70 million.
With the six new businesses in 2018, downtown also gained 138 new jobs. Hill said downtown gained an investment of $10.5 million in 2018.
Hill said city officials hope to bring more events downtown. There were 166 events in 2018.
“That provides the opportunity to get feet on the street and for people to see downtown,” Hill said. “We have always done a good job of providing that opportunity, but we’re focusing on doing more.”
For 2019, the Main Street team has even more to look forward to: Georgia Beer Co.
Hill said it’s technically not part of the downtown area, but it’s a five-minute walk from the Bleu Pub.
Chris Jones of Georgia Beer Co. said he considers his company a downtown business, and he hopes it will give a helping hand in growing downtown.
“We think we can benefit from each other,” Jones said. “The better they do, the better we do. People who have been here for years and years and welcoming the new kid on the block has been a great experience. Every day, we are convinced we made a good decision with coming to downtown.”
The brewery is a handful of years in the making, and it was able to happen because Jones convinced downtown it needed a brewery.
He told city officials that Valdosta is the only community of its size in Georgia that doesn’t have a brewery. There are also statistics that show breweries having high success rates and help create thriving communities.
“They liked the economic indicator,” Jones said. “They liked the fact we were going to create jobs. The biggest factor was probably the tourism aspect. What we are able to accomplish is pulling travelers off the interstate.”
Even though the community has shown enthusiasm for the new brewery, Jones said he receives phone calls every day from out-of-towners wanting to visit Valdosta because of Georgia Beer Co.
The hard part came after convincing city officials of the benefits of a downtown brewery-getting financial support for the project.
Jones wanted private-public partnerships for his brewery and the city. He was almost certain this would be a new endeavor for the city.
“I knew that we could approach the city and county, and they may have some property,” Jones said. “They may offer an incentive, and it would be good for both parties. We might get help for the building in order to provide new jobs.”
It was a success.
The Valdosta-Lowndes County Development Authority found a building for the brewery, and the brewery entered into a lease agreement with the authority. One that includes the authority purchasing the building and the brewery paying it back over a 15 year period.
"Main Street and the Development Authority are doing a really good job and are really trying to revitalize downtown," Jones said. "Evidence of their work is that a brewery is opening downtown. We’ve appreciated their help, and they were part of the reason we decided on this facility."
Valdosta needs city officials attracting businesses that are a right fit for downtown, Thompson said.
She said it's what Thomasville does.
“It has to be a cohesive effort between downtown and the city,” Thompson said.
The grand opening celebration for the brewery will be Feb. 4 with the Hibachi Highway food truck on-site for guests wanting to purchase food. Attendees can also order a pizza to be delivered to the brewery or bring their own food — they won’t be fussy about it, Jones said.
At the end of the day, Jones and Thompson are happy with being in downtown Valdosta.
That doesn’t mean they don’t want it to be better, though.
"The more you have downtown, the more it benefits everyone," Thompson said. "Downtown should be the adult answer to Remerton."
Katelyn Umholtz is a reporter with the Valdosta Daily Times. She can be contacted at (229)244-3400 ext. 1256.