FRANKLIN LIVING JANUARY FEBRUARY 2023—
New life is coming for Russellville – at least, if the Downtown Collective has anything to say about it.
The Downtown Collective is the official name of the board that has formed to see downtown Russellville returned to its former glory – or, perhaps, to find new glory worthy of its future.
“We have a strong historic core, and that gives us a great place to start. As I’ve heard often, downtown revitalization is a forever activity, so success right now is movement, taking little steps that build into something larger,” explained Julie McKinney, president of the newly-formed board.
McKinney and her husband Mitch began leading the charge for downtown’s renewal when their family moved to Russellville a couple of years ago. Julie, 47, grew up in Russellville, a 1994 graduate of Russellville High School. Mitch is a Georgia native, and the couple settled in the Atlanta area after college. After 20 years of watching downtown Atlanta grow and thrive, they began to yearn for a similar revitalization in Julie’s hometown. “We watched the world around us in Atlanta grow and change, and we saw the potential here,” Julie explained. “Just to watch that and see the potential, it was like, ‘Why can’t we do this here?’”
Although the city welcomed the McKinneys’ involvement in the already-existing downtown redevelopment committee, they said energy was lacking – so they took over to lead the charge. “We just – jumped in and did it,” Julie said.
The first goal was to get Russellville affiliated with Main Street Alabama, a non-profit coordinating agency that guides its designated communities to “create jobs, spark new investment, attract visitors and spur growth.” With a four-point approach that includes organization, promotion, design and economic vitality, Main Street Alabama has helped more than two dozen cities across Alabama to renew their communities and find new life.
The McKinneys took charge to apply for Russellville to become a Main Street designated community. Ultimately the state group decided Russellville isn’t ready – but was so impressed by the McKinneys’ effort, it created a brand new level of involvement, with Russellville serving as the pilot city. At the new Aspiring tier, “communities receive training and resources to strengthen their organizational foundation, including volunteer development and economic impact training.”
“I think they realized the amount of work to become designated is a lot, so this is a year program prepping you, as a stair step basically to get you designated,” Julie explained.
Since the Aspiring designation was announced in August 2022, progress has continued fairly quickly. Main Street hosted a community meeting at the Historic Roxy Theatre in September to share information and discuss next steps, and board members began to be sought for the Downtown Collective.
Mitch is serving as vice president/president elect for the new board. An attorney, the 49-year-old said he has always heard from his wife “how vibrant downtown Russellville used to be, and it makes me look forward to bring just some of that back.”
“As a downtown property/business owner and a resident of Russellville/Franklin County, I am interested in seeing more opportunities for recreation/entertainment for citizens – a place where people can congregate, dine and shop,” said Mitch. “The Main Street program is a proven way of infusing new life and vitality in downtowns across not just the state of Alabama but across the U.S. It is a way of not trying to reinvent the wheel by using something that is proven.”
When the process first began to form the Downtown Collective, the McKinneys focused on the importance of having a variety of voices on the board. “It takes time and talent from everybody,” Julie said. “It’s going to take everybody from every angle to pull it off. The collective effort brings so much to the table.” Thanks to thank focus, a diversity of people have come to the table.
“Russellville is very near and dear to my heart, and I am proud to be a resident. I wanted to help in this endeavor to have a positive impact on my community,” explained Blake Evetts, owner/operator of H&H Property Management, who is serving as treasurer for the group. “Mitch McKinney actually performed a closing for a piece of real estate that I purchased; he told me about the project, and I actively lobbied to join.”
Kassie Franks, secretary, said she decided to get involved after joining downtown’s Facebook page and seeing the efforts that were being made. “I want to show my kids that it is important to be involved in your community and projects that support or help your community,” said Franks, a branch sales manager at CB&S Bank. She and her husband Jesse have two children, 9-year-old Jason and 5-year-old Emmett. “I have always wished there was something to do in our downtown area. As teenagers, if we wanted to go do something fun or entertaining we had to go to the Shoals area. I want to see Russellville strive.”
Other board members include Guillermo Vasquez, Maleia Gist and Matt Cooper, as well as three non-voting liaison members: Belinda Miller, representing the City of Russellville; Cassie Medley, representing the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce; and Sherye Price, representing Franklin County.
“I’m especially excited about the younger group that has stepped up to say they want this town to have a legacy for their kids and be a place to begin their careers,” said Julie. “I believe we all bring different talents and skills to the table. We also have some strong committees that represent the four pillars of Main Street Alabama.”
As a board, members of the Downtown Collective are largely focused on the same needs for downtown, from restaurants and retail to entertainment options.
“If we can attract new business so locals, instead of spending their money elsewhere, spend it here – it would help not only the upcoming investors but the businesses already operating in our town,” noted Vasquez, a local insurance agent. “My kids love their town, and if I can part of the evolution, it would be an honor … We have to mold our community for future generations, and the community that I’m part of (Latino) has become an important and maybe essential part.”
As a representative of the Latino community in Russellville, Vasquez has recently been part of local involvement by assisting the 2020 census effort. He and his wife Jakelin have three children – ages 16, 12 and 5 – and he said he cherishes memories of time spent downtown in the summer with his friends.
“I hope to bring many ideas to the table,” he said. “In my case, I hope to help build a bridge with the Hispanic community … As a business owner, I hope to bring ideas and try to propose ways to facilitate a process to get investors interested in downtown Russellville.”
Empty buildings and languishing side streets will, of course, be a crucial focus for the group.
“Main Street will provide an economic study to give direction into what is needed,” explained Medley. “MainStreet does a remarkable job energizing downtowns across the state. I see potential for growth with new downtown businesses, offering more opportunities to shop local … Improving downtown is not a quick or easy task. The biggest hurdle is waiting and being patient with the process.”
“Gaining traction with actual property owners will be a challenge,” Evetts added. “It’s hard to convince someone to agree to an ‘agreed upon color palette’ when you have no way of even contacting them. We will have to leverage all resources available to overcome this.”
Although the challenges might be many – “The most important thing will be educating the community and business owners of what all Main Street has to offer and the importance of an attractive downtown,” noted Franks – the potential is monumental, and the current energy level is key.
“I have been working in downtown Russellville at CB&S Bank since I was 16 years old and have lived in Russellville all of my life. I remember times when the downtown area was a more vibrant and busy area,” said Cooper, who has been a constant in downtown efforts over the years. “The mayor and city council have worked hard over the past eight to 10 years to improve the streetscape and see more business grow, but I feel like the Main Street designation can help take us to the next level.
“I feel like I bring the knowledge of what has been done to this point, and organization will be where I am most involved,” added Cooper, who with his wife Greta has three children – Madeline, 19, Bryson, 15, and Jack, 9. “The Main Street program offers great research into our area, and if given the final designation, we will have to take that information and properly organize to maximize the potential.”
Julie said one thing that will be important in this process is “getting every single person living here to realize and believe they have a stake in downtown.”
“It is a shared vision that requires work, both individual and team effort,” she explained. “We have already heard anecdotal stories that show us gaps in communication and awareness. That’s something we can tackle as a liaison between various leaders in the community. The board will need courage to dream and ask for things. I know Mitch and I have already been inspired by support we’ve experienced in one-on-one discussions.”
In the latter part of 2022, the group was focused on interviewing and hiring a part-time director to help lead its efforts – a Main Street requirement. Going forward, the focus for 2023 will be “getting ready to reapply for designation; working on an inventory of all downtown buildings; and completing a placemaking project before May when the next presentations will take place,” Julie explained.
Board members are eager to see their efforts bear fruit.
“I feel as if downtown has been forgotten about,” said Miller, who is city clerk/treasurer for the City of Russellville. “We live in a ‘fast-paced’ world, so everything has conveniently moved to the main highway. Our goal with Main Street is to bring back life and that charm to our downtown.”
Miller and her husband Jason, and Franklin County commissioner and owner of Miller’s Affordable Furniture, have three children: Hunter, 16, Jaxon, 8, and Elizabeth, 3. She said she carries fond memories of cruising the strip as a young person in Russellville. “It was a safe place for most teenagers,” she said. In the future, she hopes to make fond memories downtown with her children – “eating out for the weekend and the kids getting ice cream afterwards.”
That’s a dream that’s shared.
“I have lived in Russellville my entire life and have always admired the tradition and diversity our city has to offer,” Franks added. “I would like to help highlight those things and bring new and exciting things into our town … I would love for downtown to offer enough businesses in all areas of entertainment. This could lead to memories for others like first dates. I would love to see people be able to say their first time performing live or displaying their art was at an event in downtown Russellville.
“I want Russellville downtown to be a place where people come park their cars and walk around for a day of eating, shopping, entertainment and treats.”
“There are so many wonderful people here that I have full confidence that we can improve downtown,” Mitch added. “I think it will be gradual and with each effort to bring a new business or event into the area, it will hopefully build on itself. I do think great strides have already been made.”
The wheels are turning, and now is the time to get on board for the future of downtown Russellville. “If you truly want the these new businesses to come to Russellville, please show it by supporting them,” Evetts said. “I believe our downtown is in dire need of life.”