By Joel Hall
In years past, the City of Forest Park was a thriving, working-class Atlanta suburb, home to many of the employees of now-defunct businesses, such as the Hapeville Ford Assembly Plant and the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) plant in south Atlanta.
As the economy slid downhill over the years, many of the city's businesses -- and the families supporting them -- left, leaving many homes, and Main Street store fronts, vacant.
On Friday morning, after 11 years of work, Forest Park and Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) officials broke ground on a new redevelopment project, which officials hope will inject new life into Forest Park's downtown area.
Forest Park officially started its Downtown Main Street Livable Centers Initiative (LCI). The program, made possible by a $1.5 million LCI grant from the Atlanta Regional Commission, will outfit Forest Park's two-mile-long Main Street with new sidewalks, curbs and gutters, brick-paved pedestrian crossings, landscaping, underground utilities, passive parks, and a new town square at the intersection of Ash, Main, and College streets.
Forest Park City Manager John Parker said the Main Street work will serve as the first phase of a larger project to transform the city's downtown area into a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-used community. He said future plans include an underground parking deck -- on which grading has already started -- and a combination of new condominiums, townhomes, shops, and offices.
"This particular portion of the project will give impetus to the total project as it unfolds over the next three-to-five years," Parker said. "It's the beginning of a more pedestrian-friendly Forest Park. It will help bring people back to the downtown area and create a more business-friendly atmosphere, so the businesses and people will still feel comfortable staying here."
The Main Street improvements will take place between Jonesboro Road and West Street, Parker said. According to city officials, GDOT will administer the $1.5 million grant, and the city will have to match 20 percent of it with money and in-kind services.
Some Main Street business owners have been waiting for downtown redevelopment for decades. Skip Cain, a lifelong resident, has owned and operated the Forest Park Army Navy Store at the corner of College and Main streets for 30 years. In 1991, he opened Tactical Gear Supply, a law enforcement and public safety supply shop, across the street from his first store.
Cain said the Main Street improvements have been a long-time coming.
"We've been very patient," he said. "It's just wonderful to see that something is going to happen. We have a big investment in Forest Park. I couldn't be happier to see progress. People don't flock to a blighted area," he added. "Once we make it pretty, the people will come."
Mike Gippert, director of public works for Forest Park, said the city began burying utilities along Main Street last year. He said construction of the first phase of the project is expected to be finished within nine to 12 months. "We've been ready for three years ... state funds were finally made available," Gippert said.
"People are trying to be more 'in-town' now," he said. "[The city is] trying to bring people and businesses in a work-live-play atmosphere. Hopefully, this will be the catalyst that spurs our redevelopment."