News Column

Plan looks to revitalize black business community

June 23, 2014

By Ben Kleine, The News Herald, Panama City, Fla.



June 23--PANAMA CITY -- The architect of a cultural heritage tourism district, Toni Shamplain had fond memories growing up in the area along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Then called Cove Boulevard, the street featured a movie theater, Armstrong's Grocery Store, thriving nightclubs and a skating rink.

Skates were the top Christmas present during Shamplain's childhood. She had the style that would strap to sneakers, tightened with a key. She and the other children liked to skate along the slope near the laundromat.

"You knew the kids with the key were tough," she said.

Tobe McCray's grocery store was the place where men went to play dominoes. Shamplain couldn't help but be curious, even though she was told to avoid the establishment. Every once in a while she would stop by the store, peeking in to watch the men slap the dominoes on the table and yelling "bones."

Shamplain's father owned the Harlem Car, which hosted such acts as Ray Charles, Ike and Tina Turner, B.B. King and Bobby Bland. The performers couldn't stay in a hotel, with segregation still being enforced. The acts stayed in a two-story building not far from the venue. Shamplain was told not to bother them, but she could hear them rehearsing even from outside.

"We had a sense of community," Shamplain said. "It was a community and a well-knit community."

But the decades have not been kind to the area. As common as churches, barbershops and beauty salons, there now are empty lots matted with weeds. Convenience stores are still around, but they have barred windows. Two restaurants sit on opposite sides of the street, long since abandoned. There's a nightclub, but it has dealt with waves of violence, including a recent homicide.

And don't expect to see children playing along the streets.

Reinvention needed

Shamplain is not looking to turn back time, but she is looking for a reinvention. The Panama City Commission approved her plan for a cultural tourism district, which stretched along MLK Boulevard from 17th Street to Seventh Street and from McKenzie Avenue to Mercedes Avenue, east to west. The cornerstones of the plan include a museum to be combined with the current cultural center at 15th Street and a retail hub that would include a grocery store.

"I hope it's real," said Delwynn Williams, pastor of St. John Missionary Baptist Church. "We're long overdue for progress."

City Commissioner Kenneth Brown, whose district includes the neighborhood, said this project has been over a decade in the making.

"This is as far as we've ever got," Brown said. "Each year gets a little bit closer and a little bit faster."

Included in the vision are Southern-style restaurants, music venues playing music from the "Chitlin' Circuit" era and venues to learn historical crafts like making cane syrup and net mending.

"We need to keep the heritage alive, have a place to view history so young people can know who, what, when, where and why," said former Commissioner Jonathan Wilson, who represented the district before Brown.

Wilson is one of the few business owners who have stayed. Wilson's Barbershop, at Ninth Court, is still in the same location as it was when Shamplain was a child.

"Black businesses started disappearing," Wilson said.

While that history is rich and worth honoring, many attribute the reason the black community was so tight-knit in Glenwood is because it was left to fend for itself; segregation created the culture.

"Many of these things children are exposed to now were not available to them based on legal segregation," said Ivie Burch, former vice president of Gulf Coast State College. "It was the responsibility of the black community to structure the legacy it wanted to leave for its children. Culture was something like an art; an art can be passed on."

10-year plan

The project has a 10-year plan. Shamplain said if everything goes right, the district could start to resemble the plan after three years. The first steps for the Downtown North CRA are acquiring property and attracting developers. Shamplain said the plans, especially specific locations, are still conceptual. The conceptual plan cost the city $36,000.

Of the 1,453 parcels, 29 percent are government-owned; 50 percent of the district is publicly owned or vacant. Shamplain said the CRA has $300,000 allocated for property acquisition, but she hopes to spend less than that. She is not sure what the total cost of the project will be.

"Some of the considerations have to be a partnership with developers," she said. "We can't build grocery stores."

Burch stressed that while the businesses left, he believes there is an attitude that persists, something that can apply to a project like the cultural district.

"We always had in our mind, we didn't know how it was going to happen, but better times were going to exist for the next generation," he said. "I believe, with the country moved to the point that is aimed towards equitable treatment of all people, each generation is going to better off."

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(c)2014 The News Herald (Panama City, Fla.)

Visit The News Herald (Panama City, Fla.) at www.newsherald.com

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Source: News Herald (Panama City, FL)


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