The tourists who stop by Gloria Lee's optical shop in Fort Oglethorpe are only a few yards away from the Chickamauga Battlefield. But driving south on LaFayette Road surrounded by vacant buildings, they sometimes don't know it.
"I say, 'You just keep going a little bit,'" said Lee, owner of A&A optical, who is used to visitors stopping by to ask directions.
The fading strip of shops along LaFayette Road may not look like the gateway to the nation's oldest military park, but Fort Oglethorpe leaders plan to make a few changes.
"We need to have flags; we need to have something that just jumps out and bites somebody as they drive by," Mayor Lynn Long said. "Something that makes the wife say 'Stop' and gets the kids excited."
Last week, the City Council heard from a panel of local leaders, fresh from a seminar on downtown development, who said the city needs to draw on its past to capitalize in the future.
Chris McKeever, director of the 6th Cavalry Museum and a seminar attendee, said the city's military history needs to be celebrated.
"Our distinction is our military history," she said. "That is what we have that distinguishes us, and we need to build on that."
The Appalachian Regional Commission and Fort Oglethorpe have pledged $10,000 each to develop a "Gateway Initiative" master plan. Mc-Keever said she and others are planning community meetings to "give people a chance to get thinking and jogging their creative ideas."
Federal officials also announced last week that Fort Oglethorpe has received a $500,000 grant for the Battlefield Parkway Multi-Use Trail. But some local officials noted that lots of cities have trails. Only one has Fort O's unique military history, and that's what they want to focus on.
Fort Oglethorpe, the military installation that gave the city its name, was home to troops in the 1898 Spanish-American War and both world wars and the largest Women's Army Corps training center in the nation. In 1917, brand-new Capt. Dwight Eisenhower was sent there to train officer candidates. George Patton often played polo on the fields in Fort Oglethorpe while he served in the 6th Cavalry before becoming a general.
And with the 6th Cavalry Museum a block off the gateway to Chickamauga, Long and others foresee a new city center on LaFayette Road highlighting that history.
"We need to take advantage of that," Long said.
The mayor said he is thinking "major things" to transform the corridors, including moving the museum out of an old health department building on Barnhardt Circle and up to LaFayette Road.
Councilman Louis Hamm said changing the sign regulations and working with EPB to move power lines underground would make a huge difference. He also mentioned landscaping and paint on some of the buildings as immediate improvements.
"It's not anything anyone can do overnight, but we can get started," Hamm said.
Long, who announced last week he will run for a second term this fall, said it's important that political squabbles not slow the effort because "time is of the essence." He'd love to have some visible improvements completed by the Battle of Chickamauga's 150th anniversary in 2013.
"I think we all realize that we need to keep politics out of it; it needs to be a team effort," said Long, who acknowledged it would be crucial for businesses on the street to be on the team.
Lee said a recession is a tough time for her and other business owners to make improvements, but she hopes the street can be revived.
"It's according to how much they want us to chip in and how it's going to benefit us," she said. "There's some great empty buildings. There's so much potential here."
Hamm said the city didn't want to put a burden on business owners.
"We're not going to ask them to spend thousands of dollars on something, but if they want to they can," he said.