OXFORD — In the heart of downtown, Southern Girl Coffee is getting ready to turn 5 years old.
The business held a grand opening in November 2014, the brainchild of Leah Cleghorn and her stepfather, Bobby Jones, located off Main and Choccolocco streets. Southern Girl, which operates out of a tiny, towable camper (and a dedicated space for roasting beans) has managed to do something that many small businesses cannot: survive longer than a year.
New city projects coming to the area might bring more people downtown and elsewhere in central Oxford and flush the area with sales tax revenue, which could help Southern Girl keep thriving in its semi-hidden location in an alley off Main Street.
Those developments include planned renovations of Quintard Mall, the financing of a new entertainment complex and the development of the Alabama Children’s Museum, which city officials say will serve not just Oxford, but the rest of the region.
Cleghorn said she thinks the changes, especially the children’s museum, will help her business continue to grow.
“I think it will boost the local economy down here,” she said. “We’d always have to travel to Birmingham to go to things like this.”
While eastern Oxford has thrived in recent years, spurred by development around Interstate 20’s Exit 188 and the Oxford Exchange and Oxford Commons shopping centers, a handful of central Oxford businesses have faltered in recent months.
Hardee’s closed in January, in spite of sharing a parking lot with the Quintard Mall and a spot at the corner of Alabama 21 and Snow Street, a busy intersection as traffic enters Oxford from the north.
O’Charley’s, a dine-in restaurant that opened on Recreation Drive in 1990, shut its doors permanently on June 30. Though the company offered no official word on the cause of the closure, media reports said at least eight stores closed that weekend nationwide.
The Liberty Inn closed last year after apparent code violations. The motel, located next door to City Hall and a church on U.S. 78, hosted illegal activity before it was demolished and was the site of various arrests, according to court documents.
Meanwhile the Quintard Mall has suffered losses, with large chains like Goody’s and Sears closing over the last several years, and multiple vacancies inside the shopping center.
To revive its flagging core, the city seems to have adopted a “spend money to make money” strategy.
Working with private companies
Some of the city’s redevelopment plans include partnerships with private business.
Oxford posted public notice last week that it intends to borrow $5 million in general obligation warrants to help fund construction of the entertainment complex, which will be owned and operated by 360 Media, a private company founded in Calhoun County. The complex is expected to house under its roof a go-kart track, trampoline park, laser tag venue, miniature golf and bowling and an arcade.
Mayor Alton Craft said soon after the matter was first discussed in a City Council meeting that financing the project would allow the city some control in its development and in the use of the property, should the company fail or otherwise abandon the site.
The city filed a civil lawsuit May 28, naming its taxpayers as the defendants in the case, which entitles residents to a hearing on July 30 at 2 p.m. in courtroom 100 at the Calhoun County Courthouse. Residents can argue against the loan, if they wish.
Manabu Saeki, a public administration professor at Jacksonville State University, said in an email Wednesday that the project may bring in enough revenue over time to offset the cost — something the city is banking on — and it should improve quality of life for residents. He wrote that government interaction with private business should be made transparent to safeguard against conflicts of interest.
According to the lawsuit, the city currently owes $153,820,000 in loans, stretching back several years in their issuance, but not including the proposed $5 million. The assessed value of Oxford’s taxable properties was $335,948,420 in September, according to the same documents.
Attempts to reach Oxford officials this past week were unsuccessful.
Other developments are following a more traditional track to completion.
In March, Oxford offered economic incentives to Hull Property Group, an Augusta, Ga.-based company, to redevelop the Quintard Mall. Hull bought the property for $6.7 million in 2017, and spent another $1.65 million to buy the Sears building from the city, a sale that closed in May.
Renovations were expected to start in early June, according to Craft. Updates to the building will include some outward-facing stores, higher interior ceilings and other cosmetic changes.
Hull owns more than 30 malls across the nation, according to John Mulherin, vice president of government relations for the group, who said when the project was announced that the company has a track record of rehabilitating malls and retaining ownership, rather than selling them.
At the time the project was announced, a Birmingham consultant said the updated mall could generate as much as $115 million in revenue over 25 years.
Appealing to the region
The Alabama Children’s Museum, as it’s tentatively named, could bring children from the region to visit Oxford during the day. Local educators seem to think so, too.
“Our schools are usually traveling to Birmingham to the McWane Center,” said Lyndsey Key, assistant principal at Winterboro High School in Talladega County.
Key, Cleghorn’s sister, said that travel to a closer children’s museum would be less costly for the school system.
The museum is expected to be within walking distance from the Oxford Performing Arts Center, located on Choccolocco Street.
A rendering of the planned building shows it to be a three-story, brick building, with a large glass front and lobby that stretches its ceiling up the full height of the structure.
The city is still looking to acquire land for the structure, and a timetable on its construction is uncertain, according to officials.
John Longshore, project lead and director of the Performing Arts Center, said that the building should cost from $10 million to $12 million. He said when the project was announced that the Performing Arts Center brings about 500,000 people to the city each year, and estimates for the museum put expectations at about that same number, he said.
The difference will be that museum-goers will visit during the day, which might help drive traffic to businesses like Cleghorn’s, just down the street.
“We have a few frozen drinks that don’t have coffee, and steamers and hot chocolate,” Cleghorn said. “I think I might type up a little kid’s menu.”