Dahlonega has been awarded a $5.1 million federal grant for a project that officials hope will improve pedestrian and bicycle connectivity in an area around downtown and the University of North Georgia.
“It has taken a lot of hard work by the city and (local) development authority and this award will have huge payoffs for the continued improvements and enhancements for our heart of the North Georgia mountains,” said Amy Booker, president of the Dahlonega-Lumpkin County Chamber & Visitors Bureau.
The city is getting the money from the Department of Transportation’s highly competitive Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery program, which seeks to help fund “innovative transportation projects that address economic, environmental and travel issues at once.”
Plans call for adding bike lanes between UNG and shopping areas on the eastern side of downtown and installing, widening or otherwise improving sidewalks throughout the area.
The project area for what the tourism town calls its “Downtown Dahlonega Complete Streets Corridor Improvements” plan includes Chestatee and Main streets, the public square and several blocks of side streets.
Also planned are improvements to on-street parking and reconfiguring parking areas “to encourage pedestrian accessibility and movement,” as well as upgrades to storm water infrastructure.
Dahlonega thrives on visitors, festivals and such, so the town may appear pedestrian-friendly, but there are issues the city struggles with.
In some areas, “not only are there no sidewalks, but there’s not even curb and gutter for storm water runoff,” said Joel Cordle, director of the Dahlonega Downtown Development Authority and Main Street Program.
“There are zero pedestrian lights on South Chestatee Street and downtown is very, very busy at night. There are hardly any crosswalks on South Chestatee.”
Cordle added, “So, you’ve got a daytime perspective and a nighttime perspective. Nighttime is particularly rough.”
He said that once pedestrians get off main roads around the square, “all the side streets leading to the apartments and houses have zero sidewalks, curb and gutter and lights. It’s like country roads.”
Improvements around the square, including the familiar brick sidewalks, landscaping and other touches, were completed about 35 years ago.
In 2008, the town developed a downtown master plan, holding public meetings and identifying priorities, Cordle said.
“The pedestrian atmosphere is critical to economic development in the downtown,” he said.
Cordle began working to find money to help pay for identified improvements.
The city got a $790,000 TIGER grant in 2010 for design work and applied three times for construction money, finally winning on its third try.
“We were thrilled to get it because they only fund 5 percent of their applications,” Cordle said. “We fell in a rural classification, so we weren’t competing against Atlanta or Gainesville.”
Winning projects have to show several benefits, including that they “improve the quality of living and working environments for people” and improve public safety, according to Transportation for America, an alliance of elected, business and civic leaders.
The city had sought $8.8 million, “so we’ll have to scale the project back a little bit to meet that level of funding,” Cordle said.
“But we hope that down the road, 2-3 years from now, we’ll be able to go back to another source or that source for the balance of the funding needed to build out the rest of the project.”
The city will have to put up money of its own to secure the federal funding. At $8.8 million, it would have been $400,000 in cash and about $400,000 of in-house work, such as through staff time and equipment use.
“We now will have to go back and negotiate with federal (officials) to scale back what we have to contribute based on what they’re (now) putting into it,” Cordle said. “That’ll happen over the next few months.”
Other things will need to take place to get construction up and running, as well as the federal money flowing the city’s way. Cordle projects all that could start by about January 2016.