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Businesses band together to revive U.S. 78 corridor

Photo by Kristen

Photo by Kristen

SNELLVILLE -- More than a decade ago, Dwight Harrison watched as fellow business owners on Memorial Drive in DeKalb County cursed a median put in place of a reversible lane system as the downfall of their community.

While Harrison never saw the median as the blame for the crime-ridden community's demise, he set up shop on another nearby corridor, U.S. Highway 78, only to again learn that a median would go in as the reversible lanes went down.

This time he only sees the positives in the project, as area business owners banded together into a community improvement district to ensure the construction did not hurt business.

"I think people feel they can travel the corridor and they are safe," he said, referring both to the once treacherous lane system as well as patrols the Evermore CID pays for. "You can go to any business on this corridor and they will say business is less than three years ago, but that's because of the economy. ... I think it has affected it in a positive way."

Next weekend, those business owners will celebrate the end of the three-year-long construction period, as contractors continue to work on a punch list, heralding the project as an "extreme makeover" that primes the community for revitalization.

In the seven years since the CID was formed, millions of dollars have been invested by company owners in their businesses, not to mention the $33 million median project and more transportation projects in the works.

"Removing the reversible lanes along U.S. 78 has improved the traffic flow and safety along the corridor," Georgia DOT spokeswoman Teri Pope said. "We have received wonderful support from the CID and the community. They listened to our construction plans and avoided the area where we were working. We are thankful the work is finished except some punch list details."

With the median came an expansion from five traffic lanes to six, sidewalks, crosswalks, yardarms and decorative lighting, as well as landscaping and other aesthetic improvements.

Even traffic has improved with the installation of an automated traffic management system, freeing rush hour congestion.

"It's a beautiful place to do business and live and work," said David Stedman, the CID's economic development director who has been marketing empty storefronts to investors and thinking creatively about the corridor's revitalization.

He sees a lot of potential in the road that leads to Stone Mountain, and where the views of the granite outcropping can be a selling point.

"The area certainly has changed" from its original growth spurt several decades ago, he said.

"The people who live here, this was their neighborhood; this was their home," he said, adding that the road became a commuter center, linking the suburbs to Atlanta and as far away as Athens.

"Some of the effects were good initially. Then you became choked in congestion," he said. "The challenge is how can you use the traffic in a positive and not become overwhelmed in blight."

With businesses struggling and the median project on the horizon, business owners decided to tax themselves, forming the CID to act as a liaison with the Department of Transportation as well as drum up some needed momentum to turn things around.

The business owners were able to negotiate curb cuts and plan for interparcel access to ensure drivers would have the ability to access their stores, and construction happened at night to cut down on the disruption.

Before the economy turned, there were a lot of successes. When Wal-Mart officials considered closing the Stone Mountain store to open a supercenter nearby, residents and officials were able to convince the business to stick to the same location and expand there.

A SuperTarget opened, too, although that store closed in January.

"There are a lot of businesses that have seen the possibility in the corridor and have invested heavily," Stedman said, referring to a $750,000 job to demolish and rebuild a McDonald's on the corridor's Snellville side. The restaurant, which has been located on U.S. 78 at Knollwood Drive for 38 years, reopened last fall.

Other businesses, such as LongHorn Steakhouse, have done similar remodels, and some brand new buildings have gone up.

Still, there have been plenty of casualties, like the Target, mostly attributed to the bad economy.

But Stedman said the recent decision to set two tax allocation districts to leverage investment has primed the area for a rebound.

Most recently, the CID has revived the cause of a Stone Mountain tennis venue built for the 1996 Olympic Games. The stadium was slated for demolition, until the group earned a grant to study an idea to repurpose the venue for entertainment and create a transit center for area commuters.

The study will begin soon, and Stedman vows to shelve the idea if the numbers don't pan out. But the possibility, he said, could be a "game-changer" in the local economy, allowing local businesses to capitalize on the 4 million visitors to Stone Mountain Park each year.

Between the connector roads and an anticipated major reconstruction of the intersection of U.S. 78 and Ga. Highway 124, the tennis center study and incentives to redevelop Lake Lucerne, the CID has plenty more work to do.

But Stedman said officials are ready to "move that bus," as participants in the television show, "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," say.

The "re-grand opening" is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the tennis center, 5525 Bermuda Road, near the intersection of West Park Place and U.S. 78.