The vision of a 50-acre Decatur Downtown Commons anchored by city-owned property on West Moulton Street and extending north along Dry Branch Creek has survived for two decades, but the reality remains elusive.
The Commons project was initially a centerpiece of the Envision Decatur comprehensive plan written in 1999 and was taken forward to the One Decatur comprehensive plan approved five years ago. As originally conceived, it would be a mixed-use development with a high-tech business park and recreation area. Archer Daniels Midland gave the city the long-vacant 7-acre West Moulton parcel that would be at the southern end of the Commons.
Rick Paler, executive director of Decatur Downtown Redevelopment Authority, has led the push for Decatur Downtown Commons, but he said the project isn’t moving forward without a tenant for the ADM site.
“We’ve had a couple of opportunities but we have to have the right catalyst,” Paler said. “And then a lot of things could be done if other properties are acquired or the owners are willing to go along with them.”
The proposed project is in Councilman Billy Jackson’s District 1, and he said he believes “there is a need. There’s a great opportunity there to look at a possible public-private partnership.”
Originally, the project was seen as a way to diversify employment, boost a low-income neighborhood and expand a growing downtown.
A number of possibilities for the two ADM buildings, almost 25,000-square-foot former cotton warehouses built in 1900, quickly appeared and disappeared.
Among the ideas considered for the property just west of the railroad tracks: a high school, when Decatur City Schools was considering consolidating the two high schools; an arts and entertainment center; a high-tech science center for Athens State University; a whiskey distillery; and a residential development.
The whiskey distillery seemed close to fruition when Clyde May's considered locating on the property, but Decatur in 2017 lost out to Troy in the competition to land the company. In 2012, the site was briefly considered as a location for an expanded farmers market.
Paler said that prior to the start of the coronavirus pandemic last year, a developer had looked at the land as a possible location for a residential development.
Jackson said a Decatur Downtown Commons “would unite this area and it would be a great segue between District 1 and the downtown area.” However, he said other city officials always seem to prioritize other projects over the Commons.
Council President Jacob Ladner called the location “a strategic piece of property” that could make a difference in this area of the city, “but it’s just sitting there doing nothing.”
Ladner said the property could become a nice park, and he “would love to build a major recreation center” there.
He and other council members have talked about building a large recreation center with multiple basketball and racquetball courts, swimming pools and other amenities somewhere in the city.
“It would really tie in this area with downtown, where they’re to build a college dorm and new housing in the Bank Street area,” Ladner said.
A $15 million dorm is planned for property purchased by the Alabama Center for the Arts Foundation last year on Johnston Street Southeast across from Carriage House.
An architect is working on a dorm facility that will house 70 to 120 students. Construction is expected to begin this summer, with the dorms ready to house students by August 2022.
State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said the architect held meetings last week with school officials and students to discuss their wants and needs.
A lack of funding has been the main reason Decatur Downtown Commons has never become a reality and, even though the City Council is eyeing a multimillion-dollar Sixth Avenue streetscape project, Ladner believes the city can find the money for more quality-of-life projects like the Commons.
“I’ve got zero worries about finances,” Ladner said. “We’ve got 25% in reserves, $6 million to $7 million in unassigned fund balance and very little debt. I think we need to be very aggressive with investing in infrastructure and quality of life items.”
Councilman Carlton McMasters said he’s heard about the proposed Commons project but he doesn’t know much about it. He said any project like this would depend on the availability of money and there are a lot of competing projects that residents want.
Dry Branch Creek is a tributary off the south side of the Tennessee River that’s just under 2 miles long. The Decatur Utilities sewage plant sits at its mouth. The creek originates in Southwest Decatur and reaches West Moulton Street near the ADM site. It then runs past Leon Sheffield Magnet School and the city cemetery at its widest before going under Alabama 20.
The area near the school between Alabama 20 and Washington Street Northwest, on the east side of the creek, is a park that is often used for fishing. Also on the east side of the creek and farther south, in the area contemplated as a future Commons, are the nine buildings operated by Union Compress, three buildings owned by Hartselle-based Russell Forest Products, a half-dozen houses and a large green space that includes a wetland.
The dilapidated ADM buildings, overgrown with bushes and trees, sit just north of West Moulton Street, between Dry Branch Creek and the railroad tracks.
Local businessman Herb Underwood owns three parcels totaling about 1½ acres in the area where the city envisions creating Decatur Downtown Commons. He said he doesn’t see the Commons project ever becoming a reality.
Underwood said there are a lot of obstacles other than money facing the city before developing the Commons. These include multiple property owners, a wetlands area and an area contaminated with old railroad ties.
“Some of that area (near Finley Drive) is no-man’s land to city officials,” Underwood said.