After the third successful ArtWalk Jasper last Friday, which followed successful Second Saturdays, we’re reflecting on how much downtown Jasper has changed and how it’s becoming a place people want to visit.
For all of these events, the town came to life with folks there to have fun – and from what we could tell they were having lots of fun. We attended several, and saw smiling faces and met people who had never been to Jasper and who were pleasantly surprised with what they saw. Others had been to town before and told us they couldn’t believe how much the city has improved. We’re also noticing younger and more diverse people visiting regularly – a sign things are going in a good direction.
There is data available that shows how many cell phones were in a certain area at a certain time, and that also shows where people travelled from and how long they stayed. For Second Saturday and ArtWalk there were plenty of locals, but also people who travelled from out of town.
Our office is on Main Street so we’re up-close and personal with the city. We remember not too many years ago when there was an excessive number of buildings vacant and, as the mantra was at the time, “Jasper rolls up the carpet at 5 p.m.” Main Street was a ghost town on nights and weekends. The businesses were mostly lawyers’ offices, a hair place here, a drug store there, and other things that definitely serve a need but don’t create a lively atmosphere.
For years, the corner building where The Old Mulehouse is now located was a depressing, looming eyesore in what is arguably the most visible spot downtown. It was a hideous bright blue and its weathered exterior set a creepy, unwelcome tone for people driving through. It sat empty like that for many years.
Today downtown has several restaurants, a brewery, a wine bar, a distillery, a coffee shop, an ice cream shop, boutique stores, a new art gallery, a new Brazilian bakery, a new antique shop, a home interiors store, with more on the way. The city just approved a license for a wine specialty shop off Mark Whitfield Street and we’re hearing rumblings of other people investing in downtown buildings to bring more to the scene. The business owners paid to add lighting to the tops of buildings and the DDA added them across the public space between the brewery and Mexican restaurant. Under new leadership the DDA is more invested in bringing life to the city. They were behind the Second Saturday events, and funded a portion of the ArtWalk events.
Even on non-event weekends, there are people downtown on nights and weekends now.
City council was wise to change their alcohol ordinances to allow for places like the brewery, wine bar and distillery, and to allow people to walk around town with their beverages. One ArtWalk attendee from Ellijay said she wished her town had an open container policy. Some people think these will “turn Jasper into a town of drunks,” but we haven’t seen people stumbling around and have had few to no incidents that required law enforcement. Establishments like these create foot traffic and support other downtown businesses.
Some people are worried that Jasper could be on track to become another Blue Ridge, which is a bona fide tourist town – crowded on weekends, to the point of being too much. We don’t foresee this happening. Pickens doesn’t have natural features like a lake and mountains, which created a booming cabin rental industry there. We think, instead, Jasper is on track to straddle a good line – enough to do to bring people in town and be fun, but not enough that locals don’t want to live here anymore.