Post by Jennifer Kornegay from Alabama NewsCenter
When Freddie Lynn and Webb Smith met at church, they quickly became friends, thanks in part to complementary careers; Lynn is an architect with Goodwyn Mills Cawood and Smith owns a contracting firm.
They started looking for a way to collaborate and recently partnered to form Bridge & Hill Holdings and launch the company’s first project: transforming a 1950s-era corner building in downtown Wetumpka into seven short-term rental units (like Airbnb properties) with a restaurant and retail space on the ground floor. The duo knew from the beginning they wanted to play a part in the continuing revitalization of Wetumpka’s city center.
And then HGTV came to town.
The network arrived late summer 2020 to film six episodes of a new series called “Home Town Takeover,” which features renovation experts and small-town enthusiasts Ben and Erin Napier giving Wetumpka’s downtown area a face-lift. HGTV announced this week that the show will premiere May 2. Thanks to the city’s starring role in the show, city leaders anticipate a meteoric rise in lodging demand in the near future.
“There should be a big uptick in visitors when the show airs,” says Jenny Stubbs, executive director of Main Street Wetumpka.
“We’ve already seen a rise in tourists, and we’re expecting a flood,” Mayor Jerry Willis adds.
Smith and Lynn believe Stubbs and Willis are both right; it’s why they tweaked their original plans. “We’d been thinking of loft apartments for the space, but the city and Chamber gave us the idea of doing lodging instead,” Lynn says. “There’s a need for more accommodation options now, but we all believe it is only going to increase due to the show.”
That’s good for their project, but their project is also good for the city if it keeps more people staying downtown, people who’ll walk to nearby restaurants and shops and add lodging taxes to the city’s bottom line.
These thoughts of an expanding tourism industry are not wishful thinking; to get a more concrete idea of what’s coming, Stubbs recently visited with her counterparts at Main Street in Laurel, Mississippi, site of “Home Town,” the highly rated HGTV show that has spun off “Home Town Takeover.” “They seem to believe we can expect an overwhelming amount of foot traffic when the show premieres,” she says.
To be ready, Wetumpka leaders have been preparing for months, creating new signs, visitor guides, maps and digital enhancements to ensure visitors can easily make their way around downtown. They’re serious about welcoming the possible torrent of first-time guests, but they’re not taking themselves too seriously, as Stubbs explains.
“We have this really fun project called ‘The Tourist Trap’ that we’re hosting in the small shop Main Street Alabama gifted us in late 2019,” she says. “We plan to use it as an information hub and gateway to the downtown experience.”
The tidal wave of travelers that’s likely on its way will be a boon for area businesses. Some downtown establishments have already experienced increased traffic, according to Lynn Weldon, Wetumpka’s economic development director, as people, particularly those from out of town, came hoping to get a glimpse of the Napiers and the HGTV crews when the show was filming from August 2020 through January 2021.
“This has translated to increased sales and revenue,” Weldon says. “And this activity really gave our businesses a boost, even in the midst of the pandemic.”
Pam Martin owns Market Shoppes downtown, a store housing more than 30 vendors featuring local art, gifts, women’s fashion and home décor. She backed up Weldon, noting she saw more interest and more customers last fall.
“There have been more people and more tourists downtown lately,” she says. “And I think what’s still to come is going to be huge for businesses like mine.”
Martin’s success and that of other downtown businesses has driven up demand, making space in downtown a rare commodity. “Right now, it’s really hard to find an empty building downtown,” Weldon says. “Our vacancy rate is currently only around 10-15 percent.”
While “Home Town Takeover’s” positive effects are evident, according to Stubbs, they aren’t and won’t be limited to downtown. “We’re working closely with other entities and experiences in town and have included everything there is to know about Wetumpka in our visitor guide and other promotion elements, listing all of our locally owned and operated retail and dining businesses in the guide.”
Once the initial wave has crested, smaller swells will keep rolling in and spreading out, according to Stubbs. “Tourism can make such a big difference in a small town like Wetumpka,” she says. “We expect to see its benefits most directly for our small businesses, but for our supportive larger businesses as well, like Hampton Inn or Wind Creek Wetumpka. One thing affects another, and if our businesses are experiencing success, that helps the owners, employees, their families and so on.”
Shellie Whitfield, president of the Wetumpka Chamber of Commerce, agrees with Stubbs on the powerful effects of tourism. “Tourism increases quality of life across the board and brings in revenue without totally changing a city’s character, and knowing that, we were focused on tourism dollars even before the show,” she says. “But now, the show will serve as a real catalyst for continued efforts.”
An influx of visitors is exciting, but “Home Town Takeover” was not the beginning of good things in downtown Wetumpka. In 2017, Main Street Wetumpka, in coordination with the city and the Chamber, started work on a multiphase plan to reinvigorate downtown.
Grumpy Dog has been serving its traditional and eclectic takes on the classic hot dog for six years, and owner Will Lanum described the impact of not just the show but these initial phases of revitalization.
“I’ve watched a total transformation from when I opened,” he says. “We were already drawing tons of new people downtown, and that just keeps going up. I expect a big bump from the show, and that makes me happy not just for more business, but because I love getting to share my food with more people.”
When the credits roll on ‘Home Town Takeover’s’ last episode, the work in Wetumpka will continue. Willis listed additional streetscape work, like sidewalks, lighting and a roundabout, as pieces of the next phase of downtown redevelopment, plus a new parking plan to make the best use of limited space.
“We’re also going to get public input on how to utilize 40 acres right across the river from downtown,” he says. “What we’ve done, what we’re doing, what the show brought and what we’ll tackle next, it all goes hand in hand.”
Weldon cited the trust that’s been built between business owners and municipal government, stressing the willingness to get creative to help businesses with funding and incentives. “We do our best to not say ‘no,’” she says.
“Our merchants know that we care,” Willis continued. “They know the city, the Chamber, Main Street will all help them be the best they can be. We know if we invest in them, they invest in us.”
Past progress has spurred additional private development, like that of Smith and Lynn, who say their first project will not be the last. “We’re already looking forward to doing more,” Smith says. “The city has been so supportive; they wanted locals doing this. And the community has been very enthusiastic.”
Smith’s sentiments are more evidence of Wetumpka’s ample supply of the characteristic Willis deems essential to the city’s previous, present and future success.
“We have built this team of the city, the Chamber, Main Street Wetumpka and the Downtown Development Authority,” he says. “We made a plan and worked the plan.” He has been asked the same question from multiple leaders in other cities throughout Alabama: “How did you do this?” His reply: “It’s not me. It’s not any one person. It’s the teamwork.”
The impacts of the teamwork Willis touts may be most obvious in the economy, but while money certainly matters, the benefits of the show aren’t all so quantifiable. “I believe the show has helped to instill a pride and hope that was not necessarily felt quite as keenly before the announcement,” Stubbs says. “It’s helped us all to take a step back and realize what an incredible place we live in.”
Martin has experienced what Stubbs describes firsthand. “My 34-year-old daughter is my business partner, and this is the only home she’s ever had,” she says.
“Everything that’s been happening, and just top it off with the show, means so much to her. I think it’s the same for other younger people, and I hope it keeps more of them here,” Martin says. “We’re all seeing and feeling this amazing unity, and that’s the best part.”
Categories: Local Scenes Stuff