“Little by little, we are making progress, and people are starting to invest in this area. We knew it would take time.”
With its moss-draped streets and historical architecture, the picturesque town of Bainbridge received an economic boost when it received designation as a Georgia Rural Zone.
Celebrating 30 years as an accredited Main Street America program, Downtown Bainbridge was one of nine communities selected as a Georgia Rural Zone in 2018.
The Georgia Rural Zone Tax Credit program, administered by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs in partnership with the Georgia Department of Economic Development, is open to cities with less than 15,000 people.
Requirements include a focused concentration of historic commercial structures, proven economic distress based on poverty rates, vacancy within the downtown area or blight, and a master or strategic plan designed to guide private and public investments.
Bainbridge checked all the boxes, and from 2018 to 2022, qualified businesses and investors are eligible to obtain tax credits for job creation and renovation efforts to existing properties.
Tax credits start once two full-time equivalent jobs are secured. When the requirement is met, businesses can apply for an investment tax credit representing 25% of the building’s purchase price, up to $125,000, spread over five years.
The third tax credit covers 30% of the building’s qualified rehabilitation costs, not to exceed $150,000, with the credits prorated equally over three years.
Amanda Glover, the Bainbridge Downtown Development Authority (DDA) executive director, says the program is not an indefinite incentive. However, individuals purchasing a building and creating at least two full-time jobs by the end of 2022 still qualify for the full five years of tax credits.
Glover says the tax credits have greatly attributed to Downtown Bainbridge’s growth surge, even during a pandemic, when 21 new businesses opened in 2021, creating 95 additional jobs. During the past three years (2019-2021), Downtown Bainbridge has welcomed 39 new businesses, creating 169 new jobs.
Joining the ranks of about 70% of U.S. college graduates interested in small business ownership Kelsey Harrell and Delaney Mueller combined their classroom instruction from Mercer University with real-world experience and opened KGD Produce.
What started as a summer job “to earn some extra cash” selling boiled peanuts—often regarded as a South Georgia delicacy—KGD Produce now includes a hearty selection of local fresh from the farm fruits and vegetables.
After building a loyal customer base, KGD Produce transitioned to a permanent storefront on the up-and-coming East Water Street. Now more of an upscale farmer’s market, KGD Produce also features an expansive inventory of Georgia-sourced products like Grady Ranch grassfed Angus beef, Southern Straws, Goodson Pecans, and Greenway Farm.
Eldrick Jacobs is another young entrepreneur that threw his “hat into the ring” of small business ownership. Bringing his creative artistry to hat-making, Jacobs, a Bainbridge native, started creating customized hats at his mother’s house before opening Flint and Port Hat Company, also on East Water Street.
Jacobs creates about 15 custom-made hats a week, delivering the highest quality products using the same time-honored tools and techniques from more than a century ago.
While not new to Downtown Bainbridge, The Refinery recently moved to a larger retail and production space on East Water Street. On a mission, The Refinery produces hand-poured soy candles with proceeds from sales supporting Still Water, a non-profit that provides temporary housing for displaced women and their children.
The Refinery produces many scented candles that depict the region, like South Georgia Pines and Georgia Peach. In addition, businesses, organizations, and individuals can create customized scented candles. For example, “Paradise,” which offers a breezy blend reminiscent of the beach and coconut, is sold exclusively at KGD Produce. Giving the nod to Southwest Georgia’s expansive agricultural presence, the Bainbridge DDA created the “Pushing Plows,” a scented candle with a “hint of greenery and turned fields.”
Place in the Park
At the heart of Downtown Bainbridge is Willis Park, complete with a Victorian gazebo and fountain. The park’s square is lined with locally owned boutiques, gift shops, and lots of choices for the avid-foodie lover. Celebrating nearly five years on the square, The American offers seafood, beef, poultry, and a diverse selection of specialty dishes that give a twist to some southern classics.
Across the street is Sio’s, a newcomer to Bainbridge’s dining scene, featuring Italian-flair meals, plus a selection of salads, wraps, and small-plate and tapas options.
Opening during a pandemic, Sio’s took advantage of the City of Bainbridge’s offer to install curbside seating platforms. Known as parklets, the interim seating platforms extend the sidewalk or on-street parking to create additional dining space and a place for the public to gather.
“Any business can request a parklet installed to give more outdoor seating,” Glover said. “The city council adopted the policy during COVID to help out the restaurants. The city agreed to install two per year.”
After three years of planning, The Willis Park Hotel opened its doors in August 2021. Located in the original Belcher Building—constructed in 1899—Tyler and Heather Thomas, also owners of The American, purchased the second floor, which had remained vacant for decades.
The boutique hotel features six individually-styled rooms, each providing a unique overnight experience.
As its name implies, the historic space is located on the town square with balcony views of Willis Park. The hotel is also home to Café Sinclair, offering al fresco dining on the balcony or inside the quaint café. Guests are treated to freshly prepared, high-quality, scratch dishes for breakfast and lunch.
More than just renovating existing buildings, the Bainbridge DDA is engaged in creating space that enhances accessibility and experience, including adding public restrooms, a welcome center, and an outdoor event venue.
Small changes like converting a dingy passageway between buildings, the Broad Street Alley is now an engaging public space thanks to public-private funding from the Bainbridge DDA, City of Bainbridge, and First National Bank.
“Little by little, we are making progress,” Glover says. “And people are starting to invest in this area. We knew it would take time.”
On a bigger scale, the Hook and Ladder project took some effort to transform the once partially dilapidated building into an open-air event venue. But, again, local leaders with a vision brought functionality to the space that was once a livery stable for the Bainbridge Fire Department.
Large photos depicting the Hook and Ladder Fire Brigade are proudly displayed, paying homage to the property’s original use. Adjacent to the event space is a playground that creates a family-oriented feel. Visitors can enjoy outdoor public concerts and events or rent the space to host family get-togethers
Known as the “Bass Capital of Georgia,” Bainbridge welcomes thousands of visitors annually for professional and amateur fishing tournaments.
With the 349-mile Flint River flowing from the southern edge of Atlanta, the river makes a wide eastward arc through Decatur County and flows parallel to Bainbridge’s downtown district.
While capturing the Flint River’s flow in its master planning efforts, the Chason Park project provides a framework for enhanced visibility of the river and its access from downtown. In addition, the park will include family-friendly features like a splash pad, green space, covered areas for picnics and events, a trailhead, an outdoor fitness trail, and a dog park.
“There is a connectivity between the two,” Glover says. “But most people, especially visitors, don’t realize the Flint River is so close to downtown. So, it’s another untapped asset that we are capitalizing on, and connecting downtown to the riverfront will be a huge bonus for us.”