The road construction signs on Memorial Drive are indicative of a sense of excitement building as community, business and government leaders come together to revitalize the corridor.
“We want Memorial Drive to be a destination spot where people will come and shop and lodge in hotels and dine,” said Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, who is leading a Memorial Drive renewal effort. “We want it to be the golden corridor that it used to be, but better.”
On April 26, about 60 business and community leaders met to discuss the formation of a Memorial Drive merchants association. Two days later, residents were encouraged to walk with neighbors to the Memorial Drive Chick-fil-A to participate in a discussion about crime in the community.
“We all have to do our part,” Sutton said. “We’re working to make this a safe, inviting place to do business.”
Sutton, who has lived in the Memorial Drive corridor since 1988, is in the process of reworking various revitalization plans for the area. She hopes to expand an existing Kensington Road plan to include Memorial Drive; construct an entrance for DeKalb Technical and Georgia Perimeter colleges; and start a business incubator.
Next year, Sutton also hopes to have a community improvement district (CID) in place for the corridor. A CID, like one approved last week for the area around Stone Mountain Industrial Park, is a district in which businesses fund local projects with higher taxes in the district.
Sutton said she has not approached Stone Mountain businesses with the idea, but hopes to get their cooperation.
“We’re going to make this a success and we’re going to do it fast. DeKalb County is a great place to live, work and play and we want to make sure that everybody knows it,” Sutton said. “This is a big part of it—bringing the business community together.”
Nick Goebeler, owner/operator of the Memorial Drive Chick-fil-A, said his goal is “to get the stakeholders in the area on one list…to talk about issues and have a collective voice and create fellowship.”
“We don’t want any more [businesses] to leave,” said Goebeler, who sponsored the Memorial Drive merchants meeting. “We want people to shop locally.”
In its heyday during the 1980s, Memorial Drive, which runs from the state Capitol to Stone Mountain Park, was a major business center for DeKalb County.
“We had some nice strip malls,” said Betty Efird, who has lived in the corridor since 1970. “We had a bit of everything.”
The decline of Memorial Drive began in the 1990s.
“It has really, really gone down. It’s amazing how far,” Efird said. “We don’t have the business base that we used to have.”
The decline has been blamed on the median that was constructed on Memorial Drive, making businesses less accessible. Others say increased crime caused restaurants to fail and businesses to leave.
A recent crime has been a catalyst for the renewal movement. In February, a female worker at St. Timothy United Methodist Church on Memorial Drive was brutally raped.
“It really took a tragedy to get this going again,” said Efird, a board member of Pride Rings in Stone Mountain (PRISM), a non-profit organization that promotes community activism in DeKalb. Attendance increased at PRISM meetings after the rape.
“When we unify people…there’s more strength,” said state Rep. Michele Henson, a PRISM member. “It’s time to move forward.”
PRISM is one of the groups seeking to improve the safety of Memorial Drive.
“We are trying to get Memorial Drive back to the way it was years ago,” said Dr. Mary Sanders, the Georgia Perimeter College liaison to PRISM. “They used to have restaurants all up and down this area. It was a central business area and people felt safe here.”
Everett Holmes of American Transmissions on Memorial Drive said he has experienced a decrease in crime at his business.
“At one time it was a chronic nightmare,” Holmes said. “It’s there, but not as much of a nightmare.”
Laura Harris of The Original Pancake House agreed: “I can’t thank the police enough. Give them more money or whatever they need.”
William Miller, DeKalb County’s public safety director, said he is working to get an enhanced video camera monitoring network throughout the county. The network would be funded by a public and private partnership.
“It’s important for the community,” Miller said. “It’s important to help us investigate and solve crimes.”
County CEO Burrell Ellis said the revitalization efforts were an “exciting start.”
A $19 million streetscape project is in progress as workers install raised-brick medians, decorative streetlights and wider sidewalks. At I-285, there is a wider, enhanced interchange and overpass. MARTA has started a rapid transit system on the road and installed new passenger shelters.
“We’ve got a lot more work to do,” Ellis said. “This is just the beginning.”
Jana Johnson, president of the 145-member PRISM, said the renewal is needed because Memorial Drive is stagnant.
“But I think we’re turning a corner,” Johnson said. “We want it to be that old neighborhood feel where you look out for each other.”