The plan to revitalize Powder Springs, Georgia

A climbing device for playgrounds in the shape of a cube and a stage on a downtown square

Photo: Thomas Wheatley/Axios

Business has been “up and down” for Stacey West since she opened Suga’s Cheese Shoppe & Cafe, a restaurant known for its pimento cheese, in downtown Powder Springs in December 2021.

  • But she has reason to believe good days are ahead.

What’s happening: The city of about 17,000 people has a plan to lure people into its central business district through new developments, and West is hoping this will give her restaurant and other small businesses the boost they need to thrive in the surly post-war economy to survive the pandemic.

  • “I love it because it breathes new life into this area,” West told Axios. “It makes us a place to go that’s quaint.”

Why it matters: As the Atlanta metro area’s population continues to grow, suburban towns like Powder Springs are looking for ways to transform sleepy downtown areas into tourist destinations.

Details: The plan, which Powder Springs has been working on since early 2021, would see the city buying land and entering into public-private partnerships with developers who would build mixed-use options such as retail, office and residential use.

  • Groundbreaking for a project to build 226 homes and apartments, due to open in late 2023 or early 2024, took place earlier this year on a lot that once housed City Hall and other government buildings.
  • Powder Springs plans to rebuild a new City Hall, scheduled to open in mid-2024.

What you say: Marsellas Williams, the city’s director of economic development, told Axios that the city envisions greater density that could support new and existing downtown businesses.

  • “We’re trying to make Powder Springs a destination not just for tourists,” he said, “but also for residents who want to live in the city and see more businesses thrive.”

Orient yourself: Powder Springs is about 20 miles west of Atlanta. It is primarily a residential town with several small businesses housed in brick buildings along Marietta Street, downtown’s main thoroughfare.

  • Perhaps the most famous store is The Book Worm, an independent bookshop that has been open since October 2005.
  • The city’s main attraction is Springs Thurman Park, which has green spaces and an amphitheater where most of the events take place.
  • The Silver Comet Trail runs north of downtown.
  • The city recently got its hands on its first brewery, Skint Chestnut, which opened this summer.

The other side: Of course, people – mainly on social media – have expressed concerns about the proposed apartments.

  • Some critics commented on a city Facebook post that Powder Springs officials were destroying the small-town charm and that more traffic would weigh on the city’s streets.
  • “I don’t even know my hometown anymore, let alone anyone other than my family who lives there,” wrote one woman.

Zoom out: Suburbs across the country that spent a generation built around mega-malls are now focused on reinventing downtown and malls, business corridors, office parks and other “automotive-centric” real estate, said Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor and director of das Master of Science in Urban Design program at Georgia Tech.

  • Dunham-Jones told Axios that as malls opened in these cities, they took over business from downtown corner shops and became community gathering places.
  • Now suburbs want people to congregate around new mixed-use developments downtown instead of around the food court.
  • “They’re really trying to jazz up their downtown areas because they see that’s really what gives this great sense of place,” she said. “Shopping malls aren’t the shiny new thing anymore.”

Yes and: Mayor Al Thurman told Axios that when he was first elected to the city council, advisors said the city needed more “people living downtown so these local businesses could survive.”

  • “We’re trying to create … an atmosphere to live, work and play where people don’t have to go to Hiram or the East-West Connector to go to a restaurant,” he said. “We’re trying to create that atmosphere where they can have it here in Powder Springs.”

Jake Hardy, Co-owner of Rooted Trading Co., which sells local handmade items, outdoor gear and rents bikes, Axios said he’s excited about the changes.

  • “We have some great staples that have been here for about 20 years,” Hardy said, “but as a whole we definitely need people.”