- Associated Press - Sunday, July 16, 2017

COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) - The Liberty District of Columbus was once one of the thriving black enclave with a myriad of restaurants, professional offices and entertainment in the 1950s and 1960s.

It was home to the first black United Service Organization in the world, Lula Huff recalls. Her father started a taxi service to transport black soldiers to and from Fort Benning.

Now, Huff and others with ties to the Liberty District are developing a master plan for the community, aiming to redevelop it with buildings, landscaping and bustling streets.

“What took place down here inspired other parts of African-American Columbus,” said J. Aleem Hud, who grew up in the city.

Hud said he would like to see an off-Broadway-type movie theater come to the area, as well as ethnic food markets and eateries like those that exist in other cities.

“I think right now, we’re kind of bland,” he said of Columbus. “I think this district should bring some flavor of the heritage.”

City officials have been holding informational meetings and plan to form a committee to work on plans for the area, The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer reported.

At one of the recent meetings, City Manager Isaiah Hugley said he envisions the Liberty District being an extension of Uptown Columbus, with mixed-use development to included housing, restaurants, hotels, and entertainment. Hugley showed a rendering of the block where the Liberty Theatre is located, redeveloped with the new features.

But the community still has to decide whether to stick with a 2003 master plan, tweak it, or develop another one, Hugley said.

Huff said everything the city manager described is already in the 2003 master plan for the area.

“I don’t see us starting all over again, brand new, when we already have something that is in existence,” she said. “And in the plan it says that it will have to be updated, and that over a period of time, things would change. It is designed the way it is to be adaptable, so that as change occurs, you incorporate those changes.”

Huff said the city missed several opportunities to revitalize the area, including making it the location for the new the new Spencer High School and the Rainey-McCullers School of the Arts now on Macon Road. She said the art school would have tied in well with the nearby RiverCenter for the Peforming Arts, Springer Opera House and Three Arts Theater.

Councilors Jerry “Pops” Barnes said he recalled visiting the district as a young soldier and he wants the history preserved.

“When I was stationed here, one of the things that I always heard was the reverence for this area as far as African-American history and heritage is concerned,” he said. “I made it a point, within a week after I got sent here, to come to this area because of the significance of the African-American presence here.”

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