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Main Street Learns To Live With The Enemy

Letter From Georgia


The Civil War that devastated the American South barely touched Thomasville, Ga. Just 12 miles north of the Florida line, Thomasville was too remote for General Sherman to fuss with. So while an embittered reconstruction South turned its back on Yankees and their money, pragmatic little Thomasville welcomed both. "The saying at the time was that each Yankee was worth two bales of cotton and was twice as easy to pick," says Thomasville Historical Society curator Tom Hill.

But in recent years it's Thomasville that has been easy pickings--and by a Southern institution. Bentonville (Ark.)-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. nearly accomplished what Sherman didn't: By building a supercenter on the outskirts of town, Wal-Mart threatened to destroy Thomasville's heart--its main street district.

Now, in what has been a victory for both sides, downtown Thomasville is thriving--and Wal-Mart is, too. "We are drawing from a much larger radius. It allows the local residents to shop locally, and it brings other people into the community who haven't shopped there in the past," says Keith Morris, director of community affairs for Wal-Mart.

The confrontation began two years ago when Wal-Mart announced it would replace its decade-old 59,000-sq.-ft. store on the edge of town with a 170,000-sq.-ft. superstore. The location is a few miles from Broad Street, the three-block stretch of Victorian buildings that has been the center of Thomasville for well over a century.

The Wal-Mart Supercenter, with a bakery, gourmet grocery store, an auto center, eye center, and a McDonald's, opened last year. Thomasville is "a growing market with an adequate base to support a Wal-Mart store," says Morris.

For most towns, a supercenter would have been the death knell for downtown retailing. "Most of Wal-Mart's sales come from existing merchants," says Thomas Muller, an economist and consultant to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Wal-Mart has been accused of crippling main streets in Hearne, Tex., Ruidoso, N.M., and Boone, Iowa. When Wal-Mart expanded in Thomasville, Broad Street retailing was already marginal. Customers had abandoned it for mall stores as well as fancy shops in Tallahassee, an hour's drive away.

At first, merchants in this town of 17,800 tried to stop the superstore by working against zoning changes. Then Sharlene Celaya, director of Thomasville's Downtown Development Authority, who headed the opposition, got a call from the city manager. "He said: `Back off,"' she recalls. City Hall liked Wal-Mart not just because the retailer was a sizable local employer but also because it was a big user of electricity from the city-owned power plant. What's more, Wal-Mart donated up to $15,000 a year to local charities.

BUSINESS BLUNDERS. But merchants weren't about to give up. Wal-Mart "may be one big store, but we are many, and we win by working as one," says Byron Alfred Dixon Jr., owner of Al Dixon Men's Wear on Broad Street. If their forefathers could live with the Yankees, the merchants figured they could co-exist with Wal-Mart.

Not all of Thomasville's history was on their side, however. In the 1890s, Thomasville Ice Co. became one of Coca-Cola Co.'s first licensed bottlers, but when the ice company insisted that its logo go on the container alongside Coke's, the soft-drink company pulled the license. Then there was the time an entrepreneur approached two local merchants about investing in an assembly plant in Thomasville. But, says Ross Thompson, the grandson of one of the prospective investors, they told the man that autos "were a flash in the pan." So Henry Ford was sent packing.

Under Celaya's direction, the merchants became part of the National Trust's Main Street Program. The plan shows beleaguered historic districts how to spruce up and market their unique structures, as well as how to organize themselves along the lines of shopping centers, with a mix of stores and merchandise and joint promotions. The Trust helps them fund the changes. Because Broad Street is on the National Register of Historic Places, restorers get a 20% tax credit for renovation costs. And Thomasville agreed to a 10-year property-tax freeze on renovated structures. Seven Thomasville financial institutions put up $1 million each, available at prime rate, to buy and restore historic buildings. And the city has a $15,000 annual facade-grant program that splits the cost of removing tacky 1960s modernizations from turn-of-the century brick- and marble-front buildings. In just three years, 20 of 100 buildings in the 19-block downtown area have been returned to their Victorian splendor.

FINANCIAL CREATIVITY. The district has used a little financial creativity of its own. The five-story, Federal-style Upchurch Building, largely vacant for 30 years, was for sale and was appraised at $240,000. But the best offer was $150,000. So in January, the owner transferred title to the nonprofit DDA for $150,000 plus a $90,000 tax deduction. Then the DDA sold the building for $150,000 to a local investor. It's now undergoing a $1.5 million renovation.

The DDA, which has the right of condemnation, can flex its muscle when other city agencies can't. "It takes the heat off the council," says Celaya. "The council can say: `The DDA did that."' When a poor family was reluctant to sell a piece of property needed for the expansion of a medical facility, the town council backed off. But faced with possible DDA condemnation, the family sold at what Celaya says was an above-market price.

Merchants assessed themselves to raise $15,000 a year for promotion. One thing that fund underwrites is historic tours for school children. "Education is a big issue," says Celaya, who reminds the kids to come back with Mom and Dad. But mostly the money pays for a two-night Victorian Christmas. Stores are festooned with old-fashioned decorations, and storekeepers and shoppers dress in Victorian garb. Shops stay open until 10 p.m., while costumed carolers sing, horse-drawn carriages clip-clop on the cobblestone streets, and, of course, Rebel soldiers march to fife and drum. That's something Wal-Mart can't pull off. The event drew 35,000 last year and accounts for half of downtown's Christmas sales.

Merchants took a look at what they might offer that Wal-Mart couldn't, or wouldn't. "You can't compete with Wal-mart on price. You have to do it on service," says Zack Terry, owner of Thomas Drug, which dates back to 1881. He now delivers prescriptions, extends credit, and trumpets his services to local clinics through direct mail.

Broad Street also brought in specialty stores with higher-end merchandise than Wal-Mart carries. "The key to business sell quality products," says Dixon. Specialty stores, such as Bon Appetito, a kitchen supply shop, and Firefly, a home and garden and antiques shop, moved in.

ELITE APPEAL. Those upscale shops helped lure back Thomasville's elite. Surrounding the town are 71 plantations, once owned by such magnates as media mogul John Hay Whitney and Cleveland oil and steel tycoon Mel Hanna. Edsel Ford's daughter still owns one, and so does Ted Turner.

Restaurants have opened downtown, too. Not long ago, a chili dog at the pool hall was the most renowned meal Broad Street had to offer. Since 1995, the number of eateries has tripled, to nine. They include a Mexican restaurant and a Chinese eatery. Most close before midnight, however, so the next step is introducing nightlife.

Broad Street's merchants, an independent lot in the past, have learned to work together. For instance, they share mailing lists that once were "guarded like Fort Knox," says Celaya. "We have taken a lot of lumps to stay around," admits Dixon, who cleared out space in his store for a women's clothier. When that later moved to a larger space, Dixon expanded into clothing for big and tall men.

Thomasville has not only brought back defecting shoppers but also attracted new ones, and half the downtown sales now come from neighboring cities. The merchants have "figured out what they can do that Tallahassee can't, that Macon can't, that Quincy can't," says Kennedy Smith, director of the Main Street Program. Adds Firefly owner Paul McCollum: "We all work together, and as long as we do that, Thomasville will be viable." It's an encouraging lesson for small-town America.By ROY FURCHGOTT EDITED BY SANDRA DALLASReturn to top

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