"The best thing about Columbus is that by population, it is this big city. But the feeling here is like a small town. There's nothing that can replace walking down the streets and being able to say hi to everyone you pass."
There's something to be said for a big, beautiful city with a river running through it. Years ago, Columbus's historic downtown sat mostly unused and under-appreciated. These days, you'd never know it. Organizations like Uptown Columbus, a 501(c)(3) non-profit founded in 1983, along with strong local partnerships, have brought new life to this community.
Becca Zajac handles marketing and communications for Uptown Columbus and thinks back to moving there from Houston several years ago. "Without even having family or any ties to Columbus, I remember thinking that this place is special. This downtown can be whatever the community makes it, and we get to be a part of it. The community works together really well to accomplish things here."
Reynolds Bickerstaff is the current Chairman of the Board at Uptown and also works in real estate in Columbus. "Some of the things I love about this city- if you want to go do something, there's tons to do. It's not a town that only has one thing to do once a month. If you're seeking connection, there are so many ways to connect with people. The museum, outdoor activities, the music venues, the events, the restaurants. It's affordable here. We're 90 miles away from anywhere in the world (referring to the distance to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport). It's easy to get around. There's so much green space." Reynolds grew up in Columbus and didn't expect to end up back home. After time in New York City and a career change, he decided to come back temporarily. Fourteen years later, he's glad he made that choice. "Columbus is a hard place to leave but an easy place to come back to," he laughs.
At the inception of Uptown Columbus, the community leaders found themselves exhausted with the issue of the empty downtown area. It was perceived as being unsafe. By 5pm it was a ghost town. People didn't live or shop there. Jimmy Blanchard, who was president of Columbus Bank & Trust at the time, organized the gathering of the local leadership group, which included a representative from Georgia Power. The locals tell the story of Jimmy jumping onto the hood of a car and proclaiming, "We're not going to let this happen to our downtown anymore- from now on, it's gonna be called Uptown, and we're going to change it." They started buying up property and renovating it to make it more attractive to local businesses and citizens. And they haven't stopped.
Uptown Columbus has come a long way in twenty years, but the goal is still the same. They're working on development, but there's also a big focus on community events. "From our organization's standpoint, while some of the different property owners were doing work to the buildings, Uptown itself started working on events, just getting people to come to this space and feel comfortable and view this place in a different light. A place where they could open a business, meet other locals, have fun at an event," Becca explains. "We still focus on events, but in the last five years we've also done a lot of work in infrastructure like the streetscapes project where the medians were added and the sidewalks enhanced."
A major catalyst to all this work is Columbus' beautiful RiverWalk. The 23 miles of brick path that runs along the river continues to give people a reason to come to Uptown. Thanks to the two most recent bridge additions, people will be able to stay along the riverside for the entire path, complete with great views. "The south side connects to Fort Benning, and it goes almost 30 miles up to North Columbus," Becca explains. "We have races, walks, runs- we are a very active community, and the RiverWalk has been instrumental in that. It's the most diverse, inclusive representation of our community and it's incredible to sit and watch. It's a very special place."
The Dragonfly is Columbus's network of off-road greenway trails for recreation, transportation and interaction. The current 34 miles of trail include the RiverWalk, Fall Line Trace and a 1.4-mile connector completed last year. Another 27 miles is planned throughout Columbus, creating more than 60 miles of interconnected trails that connect citizens and visitors to the Chattahoochee River, to neighborhoods and jobs and to each other.
Another important development for Uptown is the ongoing expansion of Columbus State University into the area. Having college students living there has been instrumental in the city's evolution, both from economic and lifestyle perspectives. The school of nursing recently made a big investment in the area, bringing even more students. The RiverCenter is yet another example of Columbus's notable public and private partnerships. Some philanthropic citizens raised $100 million because they believed the community needed a new theater, and in 2002, that dream became a reality. RiverCenter is a modern performance space that seats 2,000 guests and hosts everything from the local ballet to big-name musical acts
You just can't go to Uptown Columbus without noticing something else, though- something a little different. At any given time, you'll be able to watch people zip-lining across the river, literally flying from the Alabama side back to the Georgia and vice versa. Below that, thrill-seekers make their way down the river in rafts and canoes, adding to the adventurous charm that defines this city. Robert Watkins, the local Georgia Power external affairs manager who has served on the Uptown board for many years tells the story, "the rafting was a dream of the owner of an old sporting goods shop- Neil Wickham. He knew that these rapids had been covered up by the dams. When the Olympics came through, Neil mentioned that if we'd have taken out those dams, they would have had the rafting games here. Some of the locals put together a committee to try to take the dams out. They had no idea it would take ten years to get federal permission to do it. But they stuck with it. The group hired a firm from Colorado that designs white-water courses to figure out the best way to take advantage of the natural characteristics of the river and to do it safely. The river goes from 800 cubic feet per second when Georgia Power has one generator going to 13,000 cubic feet per second when they go to full generation. It makes for a really good time," he laughs. Over 35,000 people have used the river in the last year, and the project has expanded to include the zip-line and a splash pad for kids. "Rafting was the hook for sure, but it's brought more with it," says Reynolds. "It adds another level to Uptown's identity, and it adds so much to the lifestyle."
Of course, there is no such thing as a great city without great food. That's where Tom Jones and Buddy Nelms come in. Their Italian-infused steakhouse, Mabella's is a breathtakingly beautiful space, renovated from an 1880's-era telephone switch building (hence the name). The business partners and friends opened the restaurant in 2015, and have another, Saltcellar, opening around the end of 2018. The duo is also behind Downstairs at the Loft, an eatery below Buddy's successful music venue, The Loft, as well as bicycle shop Ride on Bikes. Tom was born and raised in Columbus. His and Buddy's family go back generations- their mothers' photos are framed at the front entrance pay to homage to that bond, and to the family recipes they use. Buddy was an early investor in some of the downtown property, and is very involved in the revitalization efforts in Columbus. "We started doing dinner theater back then, and it was the only thing to do down here at the time. On nights when we didn't have a show, we'd have people showing up, pulling on the door to see what was going on. That's how The Loft got started. Back then you could play a baseball game in the street and not have to move for a car to go by," he laughs, "and now we need more parking." Buddy explained a little about what he believes it takes to make a forgotten downtown thrive again. "I don't think it's any one thing," he says. "You need community support. If you want to really make something, you have to make it worth people coming out for. If it's going to be generic, people won't come. And you just can't build a 100 year old building. That's special. There's an amazing vibe here, and its really catching on." (Editor's note: You absolutely must try the cheesecake- Tom's grandmother's recipe.)
Across the wide range of festivals, restaurant openings, the Art Walk on Broadway, community events, 5K races, loft renovations, new business support and school expansions, there is an overarching theme in the city of Columbus. "I think overwhelmingly, we are really kind, and we want to help people, and we want our guests to this downtown to feel like whether you're here for 24 hours or a few days, that you're a part of this community, and we'll always welcome you back," says Becca.
Reynolds adds to that, "We're excited to see this growth start to become organic. People see what's going on here and want to take a chance on it too. When people have been helping you push forward and reach goals and then all of a sudden, everyone's right beside you or even ahead of you- that's why we're here. If organizations are successful, they'll empower other citizens in the community to follow their lead."