Sunday Q&A: Ed Wolverton, CEO of Uptown, Inc.


What are the odds that a part of Uptown will be designated by the city as an ‘entertainment’ zone and allows open-containers of alcoholic beverages?

“That was something that was being actively investigated prior to COVID.

Obviously, discussion got derailed. Once restrictions are lifted, we’ll examine the opportunity to carry beverages from one place to the next. There are communities that have done that. I was in Savannah when they considered it years ago. They ultimately defined all of their downtown as being a ‘festival’ zone where you can do that.

But there are some legitimate public-safety issues that have to be addressed. Officers have to know if someone is out of control, where that drink may have come from. Some liability questions that have to be addressed. But other communities have found ways to do that and I think we can, too.”

What about the idea of making a stretch of Broadway pedestrian only?

“It’s not something that’s being actively considered. 

This idea really came into vogue in the 1970s in response to the shopping mall — to create that atmosphere. Over 200 cities went to that model to convert their Main Street but those mostly had negative impacts. A few places have done it well and thrived: Charlottesville, Virginia. Boulder, Colorado. Most found it was not a workable solution, as it placed suburban thought on an urban environment.

There is the hybrid model in Memphis with Beale Street and New Orleans with Bourbon Street where it’s closed off to vehicles part of the time. But most people in the downtown-development industry would tell you that model did not succeed in 95% of the communities that tried it. ere,

Our sidewalks are so large — we have so much space for people to get around. The parking, and the access to parking, is so important to the small businesses in Uptown.” 

Uptown is bordered by the Chattahoochee River
to the west, 18th Street to the north, Fifth Avenue to
the east, and Seventh Street to the south.

Does Uptown have a position on the debate over the city installing parking meters on the streets in Uptown?

“We don’t have an official stance but, again, this is another project that started pre-COVID then sidelined.

It was brought back up with no public discussion, no public dialogue, after about a year break on the matter. I can say that it’s very unusual for a community to have free on-street parking with no time restraints. And free parking with the 3 public parking decks. I don’t know of any other downtown that offers something like that.

Parking meters promote customer turnover. They have designated these spaces on the street the most economically important for the merchants. That’s what parking meters are designed to do — get that turnover going so that space doesn’t sit occupied all day. Fast-forward to COVID, and right now there’s plenty of parking spaces on the street. But when this came up there was a need for this.

Merchants have been in favor of the parking meters for a while but In some people’s minds the idea came up out of the blue. I think the City Council was wise to defer the decision for now. Let’s get through COVID, get the recovery going. When we get to the point where we want to re-examine this, it can be brought back up.

Time restrictions work against people not familiar with the area. They come back to find a ticket with a hefty fine because they didn’t know where and when to park. WIth meters, you know how much time you’re paying for, rather than getting hit with a ticket.

Parking meters have evolved. In Wilmington, North Carolina, where I moved  here from, there’s an app where you can pay by phone. One cool thing about the app is it will text you when you have 15 minutes left. It’s a much more customer-friendly approach. “

Do you have any sense from talking with the restaurant and bar owners about what the post-COVID recovery will be like?

“It’s going to run the spectrum. We have some owners who are very concerned about exposing their employees. We have others on the other side of the equation who just want to rock and roll and get back to normal. In Uptown, we’ll see a range of those approaches. I would expect most will take a common-ground, measured approach: workers wear masks; people coming in and leaving are asked to wear masks.

Despite what the businesses may want, it’s still driven by customers. Many customers will still prefer to sit outside, to remain socially distanced.

Each business will have the independence to choose what is best for them.”

Hotel Indigo opened in February.  The existing Marriott expanded and upgraded.  The AC Hotel just opened and the Hampton Inn comes on the scene later this year. All of this in Uptown. What does that say about the future of tourism in Columbus?

“It’s vital we have these new facilities come online.

We’ve really seen a dramatic change in Uptown over the last 7 years. The loss of the mills and those jobs over time. Then the Eagle & Phenix’s transition to residential and then the opening up of the river. That has really stoked the tourism business.

Getting these new hotels will augment tourism, but they’re also very important for our trade and travel-show industry, as well. We have a wonderful Trade Center. It’s always been a bit of a liability for us, the lack of hotel space in the area, as it limited the size of groups we could accommodate. We added about 107 rooms at Indigo, 125 with the AC Hotel. City Mills is next to open, with 45-50 rooms there. The Hampton Inn will have 100-plus. Now we can accommodate larger conventions coming in.

Many people just think of tourism here as people coming to ride the rapids or check out the urban scene. These new hotels will also help the other side of the tourism equation.”

You recently said there is roughly $150 million currently invested in real-estate developments now underway in Uptown? What would you say started all this investment?

“There’ve been 3 really distinct phases of Uptown.

Uptown started in 1983 and really had a purpose focused on urban-planning issues and changing the retail landscape. There were lots of seedy bars — places a lot of consumers didn’t want to come to. So how do we clean Uptown up? How do we improve the mix of retailers? So it was more of an approach of  creating a better economic and planned environment.

After that had success, in 1999 they created the Business Improvement District, which is a special assessment district from 18th Street to Fifth Avenue to Seventh Street. That is funding extra services that our property owners felt they needed. They needed greater sanitation, better trash pick-up than the city was able or willing to address. We wanted to have extra people to patrol the area to give a level of safety assurance to visitors. That’s when our purple team really started.

The third phase started in 2013 with the river restoration. Our organization had a massive leadership role in that. Lots of visionary people were involved. Building on the efforts from 1983 and efforts in 1999, the river restoration has dove-tailed nicely with this growth in the foodie scene, the craft-beer scene, people wanting to experience an urban setting. All those factors came together to give us the Uptown we have today.”

What’s going on with the Ralston Tower? That’s a big beautiful vacant building in Uptown.

“I haven’t heard a lot but I do understand there’s a new ownership group coming in and looking at plans for how to reactivate that space.

I’m a huge advocate of housing and residential development in Uptown with a variety of different housing options. Having workforce housing, affordable housing, is really important for the fabric of Uptown.

In reference to that $156 million in projects now underway, the bulk of that is in housing. That is really important for us going forward. When you think about people living in Uptown, they are the ones more likely to eat at restaurants, to go to the shops. The more people we add living here, that becomes an economic development tool for the businesses and shops so those two things feed off each other in an interactive way.

So getting the Ralston back occupied will ultimately be an important thing for us.”

Where does Uptown, Inc. get its funding?

“We get all of our money by donations. We do fundraising from individuals and corporations. From special events, too, which generate traffic for restaurants. We really do serve as everyone’s living room.

Coming into COVID, fundraising has been a bit more difficult, like it has for all nonprofit organizations. We have not been doing our events. I hope we’ll be able to relaunch those soon.

We’re looking at holding the Beer & Wine Festival mid-June, with safety protocols in place. The Friday Night Concert Series — we don’t have a date. We typically dop two seasons a year, one in spring and one in fall. We are looking at fall, but the concerts have a different vibe, because that’s something we can’t control as far as where people go. So we’ll have to have comfort with having that kind of large-scale event.

RiverFeast is unsure; Paddle South unsure as well. The Food-Truck Festival we’re looking at in the fall.”

What do you foresee for the future of Uptown? What does it look like 10, 15 years from now?

“I think one of the big challenges we have to grapple with is in-fill development.

We have a lot of surface parking lots in Uptown. How do we repurpose those lots to improve density? TO add more housing? To add more commercial? To really make those areas more walkable. We have a great environment on Broadway. We have a great environment on the Riverwalk. Walk on 2nd Avenue, not so much, with all the cars whizzing by.

I know parking is important. But we may not have a balance right now. 

Getting a grocery store is a bigger issue. Those developers look at traffic counties and demographics. They look for the number of people within a mile, 3 mile, 5 mile radius. Hence, the need to add more residential to  help attract a grocery store. Now, grocery stores, they need surface parking lots to adequately park their customers. Oftentimes with downtown grocery stores, customers must have a different mindset: going to the grocery store more often, 2-3 times a week, but you’re buying less stuff, because you’re carrying it.

We have to grow our demographics.

The big unknown is what’s going to happen with the offices and office workers. We have been in touch with TSYS. They do expect their workforce to come back and re-occupy their existing building, which will be really important for us, given the size and location. 

National trends predict that offices will return to pre-COVID use, but will be shrinking the size of offices. Workers will be tele-commuting more but they still need to have a physical space where customers and clients can come and meet with folks. That’s the thinking right now but it’s still too early to tell.”

ECL Editor Frank Etheridge interview with Ed Wolverton 4.1.2021

Age: 61

Professional background: “I’ve been doing downtown development work for my entire career. I started off thinking I wanted to be a city manager but was exposed to downtown development work through my job in Americus. I was the mayor’s assistant at a time when downtown was a big priority. From there, I went to Commerce, Georgia, then Moultrie, then Savannah for six years. I started Savannah’s downtown program, which began during the Olympics, when there was lots of transition. It’s exciting to go to Savannah and see how it’s been nurtured and grown.”

Is it Uptown or Downtown?: “It’s actually both. It’s really Uptown but I think downtown is more the residential section, south of maybe Seventh Street.”

Biggest surprise so far in Columbus: “The amount of civic pride. Not expecting people to be so proud of what Uptown has become.”

Best experience so far in Columbus: “I like to find nooks and crannies and people watch. The place I’ve enjoyed going to the most is the upstairs patio at Cannon Brewpub. It’s almost like being in a treehouse. It’s its own cloistered environment. But you’re also right there at the Uptown stage. You see all the activity going on, traffic going back and forth, street performers are out. To me, it’s just a fun little vista to hang out.”

#1 thing you want the world to know about Uptown Columbus, Georgia: “It’s a cool place. Some many people from outside the region just don’t know Columbus. They drive past but not really stopping and looking.”

Uptown, Inc. CEO Ed Wolverton 4.1.2021

About the author

Frank Etheridge

Native son and veteran journalist Frank Etheridge is Editor of Electric City, a digital media outlet dedicated to documenting the news and culture of Columbus, Georgia.

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