Story By Lofton Wheeles
Photos By Josh Fisher and Hannah Lester
The downtown areas of Auburn and Opelika have seen a significant amount of growth throughout the past decade. Who is responsible for this growth? The Auburn Downtown Merchants Association and Opelika Main Street.
Opelika Main Street:
Opelika Main Street is a non-profit organization that was founded in 1987 as an effort to revitalize the downtown area and turn it from, as Opelika Main Street Executive Director Ken Ward put it, “a sleepy, empty area, into a vibrant commerce and entertainment district”.
The organization works with businesses to promote them, uses beautification efforts to maintain the downtown area and puts on events to promote the downtown area. Ward said that all of this is “in the name of the growth of downtown Opelika.”
Ward became the executive director of Opelika Main Street in the summer of 2019, after graduating from Auburn University with his master’s degree in public administration.
“Being the executive director of Opelika Main Street is a good opportunity to work in a thriving environment due to the many businesses and restaurants that become a part of downtown,” Ward said. “I am grateful to have the opportunity to play a small role in all of that and for the opportunity to contribute as a leader in the community.”
Downtown Opelika has also seen a noticeable amount of growth throughout the past several years and it’s all thanks to Opelika Main Street’s efforts to revitalize the area while maintaining its classic charm that attracts visitors to its shops and eateries.
“I think the downtown’s growth has been amazing and has made Opelika a better place to live, work and visit,” Ward said. “The downtown is the core of the city and the growth of downtown reverberates throughout all the different neighborhoods, commercial districts and other areas throughout the city.”
Opelika Main Street also has a talent of reviving old buildings and transforming them into new businesses. For example, there are breweries that were formerly textile mills and an event center that was formerly a bottling plant for Coca-Cola.
Ward said that the organization’s motto “where preservation meets progress,” is actively enacted due to the encouragement of revitalizing old buildings to adapt to new uses over time.
The reimagining of old buildings is encouraged in the downtown area because it preserves the historic nature, the quaintness and the beauty of the downtown area, he said.
“While many communities in East Alabama have been, sadly, tearing down a lot of their historic places and replacing them with high-rise buildings, we have been able to avoid that while ensuring growth for downtown Opelika,” he said.
Opelika Main Street puts on different events to appeal to the different demographics and interests in the city including the family-friendly Christmas in a Railroad Town and the adult-friendly event, On Tap.
The organization not only puts on great events for the community to enjoy but helps promote businesses in the downtown area.
“Opelika Main Street is really the businesses’ advocates, and we do everything in our power to help them in any way possible,” Ward said. “For example, during the COVID-19 timeframe, we were constantly informing the businesses of different grant opportunities, different government programs that gave funding and we hosted digital webinars that talked about the effects the pandemic had on businesses.
“We also have our weekly eNewsletter that we send to nearly 800 people, billboards throughout the East Alabama area that promote our businesses and the events that are held in the downtown area. We also try to help fill the void for any needs the businesses may have whether it be advertising that the business offers curbside pickup or working with the city to give curbside parking spaces.”
“The community has been amazing for downtown,” he said. “Opelika has one of the oldest, and one of the most successful, main street programs in Alabama, and it’s because of the people in the community that’s investing their time, talent and hard-earned dollars into our downtown.”
The Opelika community has been a strong supporter for the local businesses in the downtown area. The community held the “shop local, buy local,” attitude which helps the businesses grow and thrive, Ward said.
Auburn Downtown Association:
The city of Auburn also has an organization involved with its downtown area.
“The Auburn Downtown Merchants Association (ADMA) was founded in the 1960s as a result of business owners needing both a decision-making committee and a voice for all of the local businesses in the downtown area,” said Auburn’s Downtown Coordinator Jessica Kohn.
The mission of the organization is to improve and advance the downtown area, promote the downtown area to the public and enhance the downtown area as a center for commerce, a destination for visitors and an asset for Auburn residents, according to ADMA’s website.
Jessica Kohn became Auburn’s first downtown coordinator in 2016 after graduating from Auburn University in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in communication.
“The board members of [ADMA] needed someone to run the organization because they had their own businesses to run,” Kohn said. “Once the merchants association got approved funding from the city, they created the downtown coordinator position.”
Kohn described taking the job opportunity as a “no brainer” due to her admiration for the city of Auburn, especially its downtown area.
“I just felt called to apply for the job and it was something I had to think about because of sacrifices I had to make when taking the job,” she said. “However, it’s because I am so passionate about this area that I wanted to do it. Overall, it’s an absolute honor to serve as downtown coordinator.”
Auburn’s downtown area has seen a significant amount of growth throughout the past decade. The growth includes several new businesses and student housing developments.
“I feel that downtown still has its lovely charm and aesthetic,” Kohn said. “I also believe that downtown’s growth is necessary for its economy because when you see the increase in students coming to Auburn, you also see more visitors coming into local businesses to shop and eat.”
Auburn, like Opelika, also puts on a few events to help promote the downtown area’s local businesses. These events include the Mardi Gras Krewe Krawl event, Chairs on the Corner and the Downtown Family Supper.
[ADMA] acts as an advocate for the downtown businesses. When the pandemic hit the previous year, the organization started a campaign called “#KeepAuburnRolling”. The campaign initially started as a hashtag on social media to promote local businesses during the pandemic, but was transformed to a fundraising campaign.
The slogan was printed on t-shirts and proceeds were returned to a local business of the buyer’s choice.
“I still get goosebumps thinking about the support from the Auburn community for our downtown area during that time,” Kohn said. “We were able to raise over $19,000 for downtown businesses from not just locals, but also those from out-of-state that love our community.”
Downtown Auburn also has a large social media following with more than 20,000 followers on its Instagram page alone.
“I think the following is huge because it allows businesses to be seen on this platform,” Kohn said. “With this following, [ADMA] is able to give these businesses more exposure through marketing on social media.”
If you would like to keep up with Downtown Opelika and Downtown Auburn, follow their respective Instagram accounts @downtownopelika and @downtownauburn.