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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / The Sears Shoe Store goes out of business as work continues along Lafayette Road in Fort Oglethorpe on Friday, June 18, 2021.

This story was updated with additional information on Sunday, June 20, 2021, at 7:13 p.m.

The historic downtown area of Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, has been hit hard by time and changes to traffic flow.

But with the help of the Georgia Renaissance Strategic Visioning and Planning Program, which includes a grant from the Lyndhurst Foundation and a partnership with the Carl Vinson Institute of Government out of the University of Georgia, the city of Fort Oglethorpe is engaging in the beginning process of revitalizing what was once a more bustling town center.

Director of Public Works Jeff Long, who has worked with the city for almost 30 years, said that plans in the 1990s and 2000s that redirected portions of Highway 27 to go around the Chickamauga Battlefield initially dropped traffic downtown from between 12,000 and 15,000 vehicles to around 4,000 daily.

And while the traffic flow has somewhat rebounded, shifts over time brought significant change to the area that leads into the Chickamauga Battlefield.

"Some areas of it, it's kind of rundown looking," he said. "Then in some of them, businesses are closed. And then some of them just need a good facelift."

"[We hope the plan] motivates the businesses and they see this route of revitalization would bring people back in their shop and try to get foot traffic."

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Fort Oglethorpe Revitalization

City Manager Molly Huhn, who recently relocated to the Chattanooga area after working for the city of Savannah, said that recent changes in ownership, such as the closure of the community favorite Sear's Shoe Store, have also altered the area.

[READ MORE: New Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, city manager hopes to prioritize community input, historic revitalization in new role]

Huhn and Long both said that they personally would enjoy seeing more of a focus on supporting local business and installing more greenspaces and possibly an amphitheater in the area, but that the community would drive the planning process.

First, the city is soliciting public input for the plan in multiple ways, including focus groups and a survey.

"We want as many people as possible to take the survey and tell us what they'd like to see here because it's not just restricted to Fort Oglethorpe residents or even Catoosa County residents," Huhn said. "We want to know what everybody who comes through here thinks about our community because that helps us kind of refine what our vision is going to be."

Huhn said she is already optimistic about the role that local businesses will play in revamping the area after their first rounds of focus groups.

"We were really pleased last week when we held our focus groups especially the downtown business owners groups and everything," she said. "They're really excited about this and I think that's wonderful. I'm so glad that the people who are already invested in that area want to come along and be a part of this process."

After public input is gathered, a 10- to 15-year guiding plan will be developed, but that won't mean that it'll take that long for a difference to be seen.

Georgia Renaissance Strategic Visioning and Planning Program

According to their website the Georgia Renaissance Strategic Visioning and Planning Program (RSVP) "assists downtowns through the creation of a community-supported vision, plan, and implementation program. The RSVP is both a downtown master planning process and a downtown planning document that illustrates the community's vision for the future and provides the steps to get there."

Other cities in the state that have taken part in the program include Americus, Bainbridge, Brunswick, Cairo, Cedartown, Chickamauga, Clarkesville, Cordele, Copper Basin, Dalton, Gainesville, Hawkinsville, Hinesville, Jefferson, Jesup, Perry, Ringgold, St. Marys, Stockbridge, Thomson, and Villa Rica.

"We have one council lady who rightfully says all the time 'paint is cheap,'" Huhn said. "There are lots of things you can do at the beginning that make a big impact and so we'll have some milestones that are pretty near in the future and some that are farther out."

The city will also soon be completing a streetscape project on the road that goes through the downtown area, funded by a $3 million grant. So far it has added bike lanes, new lights and sidewalks.

Huhn said that city leaders have been able to visit other towns that have gone through the revitalization process and noticed common themes such as increased walkability, bike lanes and vertical development. But officials are hoping to foster something unique in Fort Oglethorpe with their plans.

"This is the area on Highway 27 where we can actually show, like, what our history is because it leads right into the battlefield, and we can actually showcase who we are as a community, and still feel like ourselves," she said. "You're not mimicking somewhere else but [highlighting] what's cool about us."

"We've got a lot of really cool buildings that we want to showcase, we just have to figure out the right way to do that."

More information about the project and the survey can be found at www.fortoglethorpersvp.com. The survey will be open to the public until at least the second week of July.

Contact Tierra Hayes at thayes@timesfreepress.com.

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