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Ashford Downtown Redevelopment Authority is making a bright future with a nod to the past

Editor’s note: Each Monday, Alabama NewsCenter is highlighting stories from the Alabama Power Foundation‘s annual report. Each story spotlights an organization or initiative the foundation supported in 2019.

Brad Kimbro is the kind of volunteer every town needs – the sort of fellow who treats his nonpaying job like a full-time job. He is also a professional who keeps the momentum going as chief operating officer at his official office. In other words, the town of Ashford is getting from-the-heart dedication as Kimbro leads the way toward a revival of spirit and structures.

The attention comes at a good time. Ashford, population about 2,100, isn’t what it used to be. And not what it’s going to be, either – yet. So Kimbro, chairman of the Ashford Downtown Redevelopment Authority, along with many energized town residents and an all-in mayor and City Council, are making it their daily business to turn things around.

After two years of plotting and planning, changes are beginning to show.

“You could go anywhere in town and point, and there would be something that needed doing,” Kimbro said. “We’ve already renovated a downtown park with green space and a pergola. And we just purchased a building, which was the biggest eyesore in town. We’re tearing it down and using the lot for much-needed parking – and the downtown is already better.”

A bit of history helps. Around the late 1880s, Ashford was a thriving railroad town with a depot now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Turpentine, cotton, fertilizer and sweet potatoes were moved to market by trains until the times and needs changed. Even when the railroad runs ceased, the town continued to forge on.

The downturn culprits were the shopping malls in nearby Dothan and the rerouting of a major highway that turned Ashford into a town of vacant storefronts and quiet streets. “If a building doesn’t have life, it doesn’t have spirit,” Kimbro said. “Add the addition of those shopping malls and big-box stores and our town was suddenly different.”

Ashford Downtown Redevelopment Authority is putting on the charm in southeast Alabama from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Hugh Deese, florist/owner of The Petal Pusher, has seen it all – and is enthusiastic. “I believe good things are coming,” said the businessman whose family moved to Ashford when he was 8 months old.

“I never once thought about moving,” said Deese, who has been in the same shop location for 44 years. “I remember when Saturday streets were filled with people – you couldn’t find a parking spot – and retailers were here, loving on people and giving them what they wanted. I have to believe, in my lifetime, that people are going to start yearning for the connection they get at the mom and pop stores.

“I want to see things vibrant again. There are folks here rolling up their sleeves and opening their wallets to make it happen, and good people like the Alabama Power Foundation are helping us along. Positive things can happen.”

Kimbro agrees the town has “a lot of momentum.”

“The Alabama Power Foundation Good Roots grant has given us something tangible, right on Main Street across from City Hall. We’re creating a new green space where we will plant white Southern crape myrtles, using them for beauty as well as to form a ‘fence’ hiding the backdrop behind,” he says. “The Alabama Power Foundation is helping us realize our potential from the start.”

Fast-forward about three years, Kimbro said, and visitors will see not only a revitalized Ashford but a destination, a place for people to flock for the small-town atmosphere, unique restaurants and shops, and a totally nonmall approach to living. First up is the need to attract new businesses to fill buildings and revamp facades, a campaign to play up the innate charm of a town that never completely lost its charm and to qualify for the Main Street program.

“Being designated as a Main Street city has many advantages,” Kimbro said of the national program that has helped revitalize about 1,600 downtowns and commercial districts through preservation-based economic development and community revitalization. “They have ideas and resources to guide us. This, to me, is a big deal.”

Another big deal is the recently established clinic that offers internal medicine and pediatric services from the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine in Dothan. “Third- and fourth-year students will train in this facility. Staff includes a nurse practitioner, neuromuscular specialist, and radiology and lab technicians,” Kimbro said.

The time is now. There’s the opportunity to capitalize on being east of Dothan, the development-rich side. And to become an attractive bedroom community to the larger neighbor. And to bring in new businesses that complement quality operations already in place.

Kimbro’s wife, Judith, owner of The Courtyard gift shop in the heart of town, welcomes her future neighbors. “I want to bring things to this town where I grew up, something so special that people won’t need to go elsewhere to shop,” she said. Additions will enhance places like the Broadway Café with its Southern buffet; Wendy Jones Photography, which attracts clients from around the Southeast; and Wiregrass Pharmacy with its old-time soda fountain serving milkshakes and floats.

Brad Kimbro can envision the future clearly. “You’ll see Ashford as a destination town that’s going to add 30% to 40% new residents, a place where families will feel safe and others will want to visit. And thanks to the Alabama Power Foundation’s support and encouragement, this can happen.”

Deese said, “We’ve gone from thriving to sad to hopeful, yet never wavered in the product we deliver. I’ve seen Ashford up and I’ve seen it down. I much prefer up. And I do think the good times are ahead.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

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