Calhoun Community College student Rashelle Wilkerson had little reason to visit Decatur before she was required to take classes this fall at the new Alabama Center for the Arts.
The full-time student drives each week from Lacey’s Spring to the downtown arts college on Second Avenue.
Traveling almost 60 miles each day, Wilkerson hopes the city will develop affordable student housing so she can save on gasoline and take advantage of downtown food and retail.
“The fun part of being here is being within walking distance of all these fantastic shops,” she said. “On my first day, I spent my entire break walking up and down Second Avenue just seeing what’s all over here.”
The college, which opened for classes Aug. 20, has brought more than 600 students from Calhoun and Athens State University to downtown.
Earlier this month, officials presented to the state Board of Education plans to build Phase 2 of the campus, a $10 million, 45,000-square-foot drama and music building. Calhoun and Athens State are awaiting final approval for the project.
Rick Paler, director of the Decatur Downtown Redevelopment Authority, said the college’s impact on downtown has been slow but steady in recent weeks.
Paler traveled with 21 other Decatur civic leaders in August to Savannah, Ga., to study that city’s arts-based economy and visit the Savannah College of Art and Design.
SCAD began in 1978 when only 15 to 20 percent of its neighboring buildings and residences were occupied, leaving little hope for downtown revitalization.
The college now offers campuses in Atlanta, Hong Kong and France.
“That’s what they said in Savannah — it starts out slow,” Paler said. “A lot of it is trying to get things started, work the kinks out and get the courses set. It’s probably good it doesn’t boom in all at once so we can kind of work up to it.”
Leigh Ann Underwood, co-owner of Behind the Glass on Bank Street, opened her custom framing shop with her husband, Gavin, in 1997.
Although her store has experienced little impact from the college, she plans to work with the school to offer framing and other services to attract more students to her business.
“Some of them are not yet aware of what’s offered here in downtown in terms of retail — especially the college-age students,” she said. “They’re probably not going to be shopping in these older districts as much because they’re much more geared to big-box retail.”
Ronnie Moore, owner of Coffee and Play House, said a few arts students have stopped in at his Moulton Street shop to eat, hang out and use the Wi-Fi since the school opened.
Optimistic about the future of downtown, Moore believes students will begin exploring the area as they become more acclimated to the campus.
“As the students next semester are more comfortable with downtown, I think they’ll start to do more things, instead of just popping in and then going back to the Athens State or Calhoun campuses,” Moore said.
Brick Deli & Tavern co-owner Tina Thompson-Hall said her business hired five more workers and renovated the patio to prepare for increased foot traffic.
The 14-year-old eatery has yet to feel the effects of the arts college on downtown Decatur, Thompson-Hall said.
“We realize that this is for the future, and it’s for the basic good of downtown,” she said. “When they do the next phase, it will make more of a difference.”
Interim building director Mary Beth Johns said students attend the arts college for morning, afternoon, evening and weekend courses.
Sophomore Brooke Alexander said she is too busy traveling between Calhoun’s main campus and the new arts college to check out restaurants and shops in downtown.
“I come in here in the morning, and then I go back to the main campus, and then I come back here in the afternoon,” she said. “That’s been the only real inconvenience.”
As the new arts college grows, transportation, housing and parking will be addressed by city officials, Paler said.
David Armistead, owner of Tennessee Valley Pecan Co., has added a new coffee service to his Bank Street store to draw arts students and other visitors of the school.
He hopes Phase 2 of the college will help the school gain momentum and increase enrollment.
“So far we haven’t had any noticeable change, but we didn’t really expect an instant pop right away when it opened,” he said. Paler said more students are taking advantage of downtown property for class projects, and businesses are creating space for art galleries and murals.
The college added an art history major to its curriculum.
“We’re looking for more ways to let people know that, because the more people who enroll, the more viable our art department is,” Johns said. “It adds to our numbers, our strength and our ability to actually be here doing what we’re doing.”
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