CHIPLEY - A project that took 11 years to complete will become a pathway to a renewed social and economic atmosphere in downtown Chipley.
The Chipley Redevelopment Agency announced at a recent meeting that its Alleyway Project was complete. The roughly $60,000 project aimed to improve the alleyway connecting South Railroad Avenue and the City’s parking lot on the northwest corner of State Roads 77 and 90.
"Though we have seen the economy dip and recover, have had CRA board members come and go, have dealt with ownership and construction easement issues, have handled business and ownership changes, and waited a long time for this project to be finished," CRA board member Amy Wiwi wrote in an email Thursday, "I am happy the improvements are complete."
CRA Executive Director Ted Everett shared similar sentiments.
"Although, in my estimation, is shouldn't have taken 11 years; the fact is that it did take 11 years, but we're extremely proud - I am - of the CRA and the city council for moving forward with this project," Everett said.
Chief among alleyway concerns was poor drainage which caused storm water pouring into at least eight business properties along the alleyway - a problem exacerbated by the buildings then having an elevation lower than the alleyway.
With the project completed, elevation issues are minimized. However, some business owners and building owners are not totally satisfied with the end product of the alleyway.
Cindy Farmer, owner of Cindy's Urbanedge Thrift Store, located at the corner closest to Railroad Avenue, pointed out a number of looming issues resulting from what she believes are inadequate, but newly installed gutters. She said it's worse than ever before.
"The water is not going out on either way like it was supposed to," Farmer said. "To me, it's not finished; it needs more work."
Farmer walked to the back of her business to the alley Thursday. She pointed to a downspout that was not strapped, as well as to one that has created a gaping hole in the ground from apparent heavy rain water drainage.
"You can see where every time it rains - just the little bit since they've finished has made that big of a hole and if it keeps on, that's going to hurt my structure," Farmer said.
"I'm just a little unhappy about it because I do own this building."
She has owned the building for six years.
On the other side of the row of businesses, a barbershop that has been there since December last year had to close last Saturday due to rain water flooding nearly half of the floor space, the shop's employees said. It was the third time the shop had to close since the gutters went up.
"The minute they put up the gutters, the water started pouring in the back door - not coming through the door; it's coming through the wall," said employee Karma Cooper, a hairstylist. "And we had to close and couldn't work."
She has worked out of shops on that same row for 18 years.
"I think it was good to fix up the alley, but I think they need to finish it," Cooper said. "We can't work if they don't fix the gutters. We have to close the shop."
Not all business owners have the same testimony. One business owner said she has not experienced any rain water flowing inside since the project's completion.
Talk O' The Town Nutrition owner Melissa Snapp said she is - with the exception of periodical breakdowns in communication between the City and business owners - generally satisfied.
"I'm happy that there's not snakes out there, I'm happy that it looks better, I'm happy that the water flow is better back there and we don't have to worry about cutting grass, but the construction portion of it was very inconvenient and not handle well," Snapp said.
"I'm happy with how it looks," she added.
Snapp has rented the building for six years.
Opportunities to improve
The dated structure, which has eight units, also has a series of flat roofs - something that generally works against any building. Standing water can cause structural decay and leaks.
The CRA is pursuing four grants that will be available to help business and building owners update their structures. The grants are for up to 50-percent reimbursement matching and total $28,000 for interior and exterior improvements.
The grants may not be exclusive to units impacted by the alleyway project.
"The core problem with the buildings downtown is their age," Everett said, noting they will deteriorate with age.
The grants, he added, "now opens up those business owners to more of CRA money to fix some of the structural deficiencies within those buildings."
He later noted it's hard to throw enough money at structural improvements, but the CRA is making efforts.
The way forward
Everett recalled a time when downtown bustled and was a fun place for families to enjoy late afternoons.
"We had a thriving downtown, as a little kid, I would come down here with my dad," he said, listing some family-owned businesses. "It was the town core; it was central to everything. We need try to reclaim some of that."
Some developments the CRA is looking forward to include more murals, a diversity of businesses, the return of Amtrak and Chipley City Council loosening some regulations on its alcohol ordinance.
Also, since some of the downtown businesses have second floors, the CRA is envisioning for those to become rental properties, which are common features of downtowns just about anywhere.
"The CRA is a volunteer organization and we work hard to see projects come to fruition in the downtown area," Wiwi wrote. "I am happy for the board, as well as the business and building owners along the alleyway. I look forward to more projects in the future to continue to revitalize the CRA area."