ALBANY — When Albany began contemplating a new transit station location, no one likely anticipated it would take nearly two decades to make a final decision on the transportation hub or that it would end up being in the same place.
After the process began in the early 2000s, several sites in the downtown area were considered and rejected for one reason or another. The end result was coming full circle back to 300 W. Oglethorpe Boulevard, the site where the former Trailways building was demolished last month to make way for a new structure.
While the dithering didn’t appear to affect the overall cost to a great extent, it did cause a scaling back of the scope of the project, Albany Transportation Director David Hamilton said.
The original vision was for a two-story building to be located on property the city owns behind the Dougherty County Judicial Building. The project, as initially conceived, would have included commercial space for retail stores and perhaps a restaurant downstairs, with offices on the second floor.
Those plans fell through due to opposition from some people in the community, the Transportation director said.
“There was a lot of protest from surrounding business owners,” said Hamilton, who began working with the city in 2002. “They didn’t want it to be at that site.”
There also were concerns that there could be Native American artifacts there, due to its proximity to the Flint River, although an archaeological study was never completed, Hamilton said.
“While that (study) was going on, we went to the City Commission for funding for the design process,” he said. “There was no support for it. We couldn’t get four votes, so that told us we couldn’t build there. We had to go back to the site-selection process.”
Over the intervening years, several other sites were examined, including the site of the former Heritage House Hotel that was still standing on West Oglethorpe at the time.
During that time, the Transportation center itself was doing some moving of its own. In around 1998, the city moved its transportation operations from the site that now houses the Flint RiverQuarium to behind the Civic Center parking lot, Hamilton said.
In 2000, operations were moved to the Trailways station site. With the demolition of the building, the downtown center for transportation was moved back to the area behind the Civic Center.
In 2009 the city received $4.5 million in funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed to boost the economy during the Great Recession that started in 2008. At the time, the anticipated overall cost of the project was thought to be between $12 million and $13 million.
The city still did not have a firm location, and moving through the process caused delays.
“The Federal Transit Administration felt we weren’t moving fast enough, so that (grant) money was withdrawn,” Hamilton said.
Finally the city turned to the public for help in selecting a site in 2014.
“People overwhelmingly supported the (current) location,” Hamilton said. “That was a very tense time, from 2002 until 2014.”
Commissioners agreed, and the city purchased the former Trailways station from the transportation provider Destiny Transportation Group for a little less than $1.5 million, Hamilton said. During the course of the site selection process, the city spent about $750,000 on the various studies.
Environmental and archaeological studies have been completed, and the city is awaiting final approval to start erecting the new structure. With a “very aggressive” schedule, the facility could be completed by January 2022, Hamilton estimated.
The new transit center has an estimated construction cost of $9.7 million to $10 million. The city has received state and federal funding and set aside funding through special-purpose local-option sales tax for the project.
The center will be a transit hub for city buses and access to Greyhound bus service and cabs. It also has parking and bicycle racks for people who take city buses from that location. The facility will have Wi-Fi access and a few computer terminals for public use, Hamilton said.
The city also plans to recognize the importance of the site in the Albany civil rights movement by honoring Ola Mae Quarterman, who was arrested in 1962 after she refused to move to the back of a city bus after paying her fare. Quarterman’s action predated by three years the more famous incident in Montgomery, Ala., involving Rosa Parks.
Designers discussed including a possible plaza named for the civil rights pioneer and a bronze statue in the transit facility. Another design element will honor students who staged sit-ins at the building in 1961.
Officials say they feel the new facility could provide an economic boost to the historic Harlem District, which was a center of black business and residential life dating back to at least around 1900. An archaeological study at the site performed earlier that year turned up evidence of that activity.
The City Commission also has discussed renovating the Ritz Theater, which provided entertainment for black residents in the area and is now owned by the city.
“I remember going on Sundays and paying a quarter for Sunday matinee shows there,” said Albany Commissioner Jon Howard, who was serving on that board during the period of the site search.
The coming of the Albany Mall and churches relocating elsewhere are among the factors that contributed to the area losing the economic clout it once had, he said. Still, it is filled with history, including the building where the city’s first black-owned pharmacy was located.
“There were a number of mom-and-pop stores and businesses, restaurants and most of your cab line grew out of the Harlem area,” Howard said. “There were barber shops and beauty salons.
“There was a club there. In the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, it was the place for black people to come on the weekend. It also nurtured black-owned businesses in that area.”
A modern transportation center could be a part of regenerating growth in the area “if we can get a viable retail store to come there and maybe a national brand restaurant,” Howard said.
Private investment will be necessary to drive economic growth in addition to the government spending, he said.
“If we can have a nice restaurant, then it would certainly be a spark to put foot traffic back in the area,” Howard said. “It won’t be easy. You’ve got to educate these young people that for 50 years this was the place for people to come for a good time on the weekends and to patronize the businesses that move here.”