COLUMBUS, Ga. – Forty years ago this month, I came to Columbus to be a Sports Anchor here at WRBL. Longtime News Director and Anchor Dick McMichael took a chance on a young 24-year-old UGA Journalism grad and gave him his first job in television. My how four decades have flown by. And just as I have certainly changed over the last 40 years.
So has the city of Columbus, particular the downtown area. We’re going to reflect on the last four decades through the eyes of a company that has been right in the middle of those downtown changes, The W.C. Bradley Company.
To get a sense of how the downtown Columbus area has changed in the last 40 years. The transformation is dramatic. Clearly Uptown Columbus is nothing like the mill town it was back in the 70s.
“Probably the one thing that I think really helped Columbus transition from the old days where the river was the focused on textile mills to where the river is being focused on leisure and passive enjoyment is the Riverwalk,” says Mat Swift.
The first phase opened on Columbus Day in 1992.
“Really it came about as a matter of trying to resolve the combined sewer overflow problem. They were going to have to put a sewer line along the river there, and it was like, okay, why not put a Riverwalk on top of it?” says Steve Butler.
“When we opened up the Riverwalk and people started coming down and seeing how beautiful the river was and how relaxing the river can be as a passive investment, that spurred economic development, that spurred development along the river,” says Swift.
Another catalyst to reviving the downtown area can be traced back to the mid 60’s when the historic Springer Opera House was slated for demolition, but a group of concerned citizens raised the money to save it.
“Out of that the Historic Columbus Foundation was born which really promoted residential living in the downtown and the preservation, conservation of the important historic structures that we had,” says Butler.
A lot of Columbus history resides in the Columbus Ironworks which was owned by the Bradley Company.
“The Bradley Company Charbroil Division used to be in the Ironworks..moved out in the early 70’s and following that the city took it over and developed the Trade and Convention Center,” says Butler
The Bradley Company itself has done a lot of historic preservation. Their unique office building was constructed in the late 1890’s and served as a warehouse. It’s been in continuous use ever since. Today is serves as the company’s worldwide headquarters. The Bradley Company is an enthusiastic supporter of the arts in our community. They helped make the Columbus challenge a success back in the 90’s. That campaign raised the capital for the construction of the Rivercenter for the Performing Arts, one of the jewels of the new Uptown and from there.
“Columbus State saw the opportunity to bring the Schwob School of Music to the downtown. That was maybe one of the most important things that has happened because it led to, well certainly, all the students that came with that,” says Butler.
And the student population continued to grow with the creation of the CSU River Park campus that includes the College of Arts and come January, the addition of the College of Education and Health Professions on the site of the old Ledger-Enquirer building. TSYS became a major player in the development of downtown in 1999, when they opened their Riverfront campus, which brought thousands of their employees into the downtown area, another catalytic event according to Butler.
“Several years ago we decided that we were not going to work out in the suburbs anymore. We were going to devote 100% of our time to the downtown and to uptown. And as a result of that, we are very focused on trying to take these old warehouses and these old mills that we’ve owned for hundreds of years and retool them into modern times,” says Swift.
And the Bradley Company is equally committed to the future of downtown Columbus.
“We’ve probably spent $100 million over the last 15-20 years downtown. And we’ve probably got another $100 million dollars worth of developments on the drawing board,” says Swift.
Downtown Columbus is already attracting some of the region’s finest restaurants. And Swift believes there’s an opportunity for another one to be showcased in what used to be the old power houses that jut out into the Chattahoochee.
“We’ve got a number of very reputable restaurant operators that are looking at this facility that could make a restaurant that’s one of the more unique restaurants in the entire world,” says Swift.
The final catalyst for change in downtown Columbus we saved for last. The development of Whitewater. Since it opened in 2013, over 100,000 folks have ridden the rapids.
“I give all the credit in the world to John Turner for his vision in saying these two dams are no longer needed. They were not producing hydro power anymore. What else could we do with this river? And out of that came the seed to tear down the dams and create the world’s largest urban whitewater experience,” says Swift.