Adina Solomon is a freelance journalist based in Atlanta. She has written for The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, and local outlets.
A 2014 fire in Clarkesville, Georgia, was “the worst nightmare for someone who’s in downtown development.” But the recovery launched an essential conversation about what the town square should be.
Three years after a fire tore through her city’s downtown square, Barbara Kesler had one of the best days of her life. It was the day that the square reopened in Clarkesville, Georgia.
“The day that we did the ribbon-cutting and opened the spaces, it was an overwhelmingly emotional and very positive day for the community,” says Kesler, Clarkesville’s city manager. “It was something we had worked so hard for.”
But that ribbon-cutting almost didn’t happen.
The fire, in March 2014, burned down a quarter of the square in Clarkesville, a city nestled near the Blue Ridge Mountains about 85 miles north of Atlanta.
“This is like the worst nightmare for someone who’s in downtown development,” says Mary Beth Horton, Clarkesville’s economic development director. “You come home from work one day and everything’s fine. You wake up the next morning and half of your downtown is gone and then you’ve got to somehow figure out how it’s all going to come together again.”
That’s a familiar feeling for many cities, no matter if they’re hit with a fire, hurricane, or other disaster. A fire in the historic downtown of Bothell, Washington, near Seattle, destroyed at least 15 businesses in July 2016. In the same month, flooding wrecked most of the historic downtown and collapsed parts of Main Street in Ellicott City, Maryland, near Baltimore. A downtown block with multiple businesses in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, went up in flames in February.
But with the right steps, cities can rebuild after disaster. To understand how, just start with Clarkesville.
After Clarkesville’s fire, about 30 employees from the businesses that burned down had nowhere to work. Kesler says the Georgia Department of Labor drove a bus to town two days after the fire, and for several days, the bus was open to help place people at other businesses. Within the week, almost all of the former employees had found new jobs.
Next, Clarkesville had to fix downtown. The owners of the fire-damaged buildings couldn’t afford restoration. Six months after the fire, no buyers had stepped forward to take on the task. So Clarkesville bought four properties for $400,000, plus one property it received through donation. Horton says this was necessary to salvage downtown.
“Of course, you’re always met with, ‘Oh, well, this is government taking over property,’ and all this kind of stuff, and yes, it is,” she says. “But at the same time, we have an allegiance to our town and we can’t let half of our town just sit there burnt down without stepping in and doing something, so we just had to get very proactive very quickly.”
Clarkesville Mayor Barrie Aycock adds: “That was the only way that it could be built back in a way that would be an asset to the town.”
The rebuilding effort came with plenty of momentum to do more. Clarkesville decided not only to restore the 120-year-old buildings, but also to pair the work with an expansive master plan for the downtown area. For guidance, the town turned to the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government, which works with public officials in the state.
In order to know what projects to focus on, the city needed input from residents, business owners, and visitors. Horton organized focus groups and sent out surveys, and more than half of Clarkesville’s 1,733 people gave feedback. Horton attributes much of the downtown project’s success to involving the public.
The consensus was to preserve the historic buildings, and ground broke on the square in April 2016. In a row of three buildings on the square, the middle one had burned down, and when Clarkesville added a firewall to make the remaining buildings structurally sound, there wasn’t enough space for a third building. So they made it into an open-air plaza that connects the square to nearby Washington Street.
The project, including buying the buildings, cost $3 million. Without grants—which funded 40 percent of that—and the city’s planning efforts, Clarkesville’s rebuild wouldn’t have happened.
A year later was the day Kesler had been waiting for: the ribbon-cutting. “The city made the commitment not to let downtown die,” she says. “Because it would’ve died if we would’ve left it there.”
Clarkesville resident Deb Kilgore now lives in an apartment built over one of the formerly damaged buildings, a project suggested by the public. The single unit is a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment built over ground-level retail in one of the restored buildings. “The community came together to support the city’s endeavors,” Kilgore says.
The rebuilding acted as a catalyst for smaller projects: removing outdated parking signs; improving streetscapes with sidewalks, lighting, and planters; and painting a scenic view of Clarkesville on a plain-looking brown building, enhancing the entrance to downtown.
Clarkesville’s work imparts a few lessons for cities facing similar situations.
For one thing, talk to the public. In addition to involving adult residents, Clarkesville also created a Main Street committee with high school students.
“When these buildings were built back, people could look at it and shake their heads in approval because it was their ideas,” says Danny Bivins, a senior public service associate at the Vinson Institute who worked with Clarkesville. “If you talk to people, they know what the issues are in the community. They have the solutions.”
Another lesson borrows from Lean Urbanism—accomplishing quicker, less expensive projects while also working on the projects that take considerable time and money.
“If you’re not in local government and you go and you give your input, you talk about changes that you want to see, and then you don’t hear anything back for seven years, that can be disconcerting,” Bivins says. “It’s really important for us to have some short-term success that people can see, that their energy and their input is being used.”
Kesler advises not to rush projects, but to make clear commitments on time and budget.
Horton says a rebuild requires constant communication with the public. Clarkesville announced how long projects would take as they happened, and posted pictures of how they would look. That communication assured residents like Kilgore.
“It was important for people to know that the city was serious about rebuilding and being able to see what was going on,” Kilgore says.
Disaster can breed action. After its fire, Bothell was able to secure long-sought financing to redevelop Main Street. Clarkesville, in addition to the design changes, created community events to attract more people downtown.
“The fire was such a devastation to us, but there was such a silver lining in it, because had it not been for that, we probably would not have done all the different things that we’ve done for the entire downtown as a whole,” Horton says. “All of that sort of happened on the tail end of this fire, because we realized we just had the opportunity to do all of this, and we jumped on it.”