Alabama cities are seeking to keep young people, and one weapon in the struggle is finding them a place to live.
The Decatur Downtown Redevelopment Authority has formed a loft committee to promote loft apartments, but ultimately the effort is on the shoulders of property owners and developers, Decatur Community and Economic Development Director Wally Terry said.
"The plans to build and develop more loft living opportunities is with those who own the properties and their perceived ability to obtain the necessary rents to justify the cost of the project they have in mind to develop," he said. "This is much like any apartment development, though on a smaller scale."
In recent years, Decatur officials and business leaders faced obstacles to residential lofts apartment in the historic downtown business district. Restrictive building codes, lack of demand and cautious investors have hampered development. City officials said interest in loft apartments increased during the construction of the Alabama Center for the Arts on Second Avenue.
The Decatur Planning Commission unanimously approved an amendment to the B-5 zoning ordinance in July that added language concerning single-family dwellings above businesses and removes certain requirements that accompany residential zoning districts.
Terry said hurdles can come on a case-by-case basis, and the loft committee tries to anticipate them when they can.
The committee a section on the Downtown Redevelopment Authority's website that highlights available loft property in the city.
"Developing rental income properties is a long term prospect and normally not one of immediate returns," Terry said.
Terry said lofts will go a long way toward convincing young professionals to stay in the city, but it's not the total solution.
"In my opinion, there is not a magic bullet for attracting young professionals to any community," Terry said. "I believe it is more of an overall strategy of improving, expanding and adding to the many quality of life opportunities that we enjoy as a community. Young professionals have many common needs but they also have a diversity of needs that need to be understood."
Athens hasn't put as much work into developing loft apartments as Decatur, but its leaders have identified about 43,000 square feet of upstairs space in 15 blocks of downtown area that could be converted into living quarters.
Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks is in the early stages of an initiative to reach out to young people, including the recently-formed Mayor's Youth Council. Despite having Athens State University, a college that produces workforce-ready graduates, Athens may have work to do to attract young professionals to its jobs.
"I think we've lost some of that," Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks said. "We want to tell young people, ‘This is your city, your town.' "
Although Athens passed an ordinance allowing residents to live in upstairs portions of downtown buildings, the city still suffers from some of the same zoning problems Decatur did. The issue came up during Fire Chief Tony Kirk's job interview in June, when then-Councilwoman Mildred Caudle asked him if he could change the fire codes that hinder loft development. He said he would look into it, but the decision didn't rest completely with him.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at 256-340-2445 or email@example.com.
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