Dedicated to Making a Difference

By Brad McEwen

Having lived near and worked in the downtown area for the better part of two decades, I freely admit that I’ve got a definite soft spot for the center of our community. I relish any chance I have to take my kids to turtle park, the RiverQuarium or Thronateeska, take a stroll along the river walk or simply stop for a moment and soak in the beauty of the Flint. To me downtown Albany is more than just the place where east and west meet—it’s the true heart of the city I call home.

It’s for that reason that I’ve always tried to be a champion and cheerleader of attempts to revitalize downtown Albany and why I’ve kept a keen eye on the efforts being made by numerous leaders and fellow residents to spur development in the area.

Sadly, like many of my fellow Albanians, I feel there hasn’t been a whole lot to get excited about over the years when it comes to growth and change in downtown Albany, but lately it seems that’s all started to change.

Thanks to investments by two local businessmen, in just a few months our downtown will welcome a pair of the most significant developments it’s seen in decades when the Pretoria Fields microbrewery on Pine and the Flats at 249 in the former Albany Heights building open for business.

While neither of those developments would be coming to fruition without private investments from Dr. Tripp Morgan (Pretoria Fields) and developer Pace Burt (Flats at 249), they’ve certainly been aided by partnerships with the Albany Dougherty Inner City Authority (ADICA), and the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), as well as through the guidance of Downtown Manager Latoya Cutts—who for my money has established herself as just the kind of leader and champion our downtown development efforts need.

I recently sat down with Latoya for an engaging and enlightening conversation to get a better feel for how she views her role with the City of Albany, what downtown development means to the community and why she feels believes she’s meant to be in her current position at this specific time.

“I think it’s safe to say that I’m happy that I really have gotten to a place in life where I accept that although you may want to do certain things, ultimately if it’s not meant for you to do whatever that thing is, it won’t happen,” she said. “I think you end up where you’re supposed to and I think God has a way of literally allowing you to connect with the right people and those right people kind of see whatever it is in you that God has placed in you and they open the door and allow you to serve exactly where you’re supposed to serve.

“I just don’t believe I’m here by accident. I don’t believe that the timing of when I’m here is by accident. But I also don’t believe that there’s anything special about me. What’s special is what’s happening in downtown Albany.”

What IS happening in downtown Albany, Latoya said, is that these two, exciting developments are catalysts for a momentum that hasn’t been felt in that area of the city in some time and are the impetus for what she believes are great things that lay ahead for the residents of this community.

“These projects are huge for downtown,” said Latoya. “And a vibrant downtown helps with overall economic development. If we can have a vibrant and thriving downtown, it adds value to the efforts of Justin (Strickland, President of the Albany Dougherty Economic Development Commission) and those who are trying to create an environment that welcomes opportunity for more economic development.

“It is very exciting.”

While the importance of those two projects is easy to see, Latoya believes those two projects are special because they offer hope and encouragement to a population that in many ways has been conditioned to expect downtown projects and revitalization efforts fall by the wayside.

“Those projects mean that for people who think that downtown Albany has had a lot of starts and stops, or that there’s been a lot of promises made, or conversations about things that are supposed to happen but never happened, I think those two projects actually happening—like the moment dirt started turning on the microbrewery, the moment you started seeing things being taken out of Albany Heights and development actually happening—it became real for people,” Latoya explained. “And I think it became, ‘maybe, just maybe, things are going to be different this time. Just maybe we’re not going to have a start and a stop. Maybe we’re actually going to move forward and downtown is actually going to start to become what it should have become a long time ago.’

“Those two projects, because they’re done by local people, because of the magnitude and the size of the projects—and the amount of the investment in the projects—I think they force people to pay attention to them. I think they have to take them seriously. But they also have to take seriously the fact that those two things could be a sign that downtown Albany is actually moving in the right direction.”

And moving Albany in the right direction and seeing life improved for her friends and neighbors is something that’s been a constant throughout the downtown manager’s life beginning with her childhood in Americus, watching her great-grandmother take care of the folks in her community and learning by her example.

“I come from a family of women helpers,” said Latoya. “My great-grandmother was 101 when she died and I was very, very close to my great-grandmother. And I grew up in an area of Americus where it seemed like she was always feeding people. She was always taking care of people. She was always just lending a hand or helping somebody in some way—just strangers, you know. She’d give them a little money just to do yard work just to help them out. Other people’s kids whose parents were working and they didn’t have anywhere else to go; she was taking care of those kids. That was just always her and I loved that about her.”

And that example clearly had a significant impact on Latoya’s life.

Even during her time working in retail, after earning her Bachelor of Business Administration in Marketing from Georgia Southwestern University, most of Latoya’s professional life has been spent in jobs where she felt like she could make a real difference in people’s lives, something she said really started with her time at Navy Federal Credit Union at Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany.

“I was actually the Assistant Branch Manager that helped open that Navy Federal branch out on base,” Latoya said. “I had never worked in banking before that, but I got a good education. It offered me the opportunity to really connect with people.

“I think it’s kind of like anything else, you have this idea of what you’re going to be, what you’re going to do, but you don’t have an exact plan or a roadmap for how you’re going to get there, you just have these thoughts when you’re younger. And then you start to kind of evolve and go to different places. What working in banking taught me was that I liked the component of helping people. I really enjoyed that.”

Her time at the credit union also helped Latoya make connections that led to her first stint working in government, taking a job with the city’s Microbusiness Enterprise Center where she was able to continue helping the community while developing an interest in economic development.

While with the microbusiness center Latoya said she had “a backseat view” of the inner workings of government and she eventually began to understand the bigger picture of how her role connecting small business owners to important resources impacted the entire department and the city as a whole.

“Exposure to that other side kind of gave me a feel for, ‘this is so much bigger,’” she explained. “And that it’s always important not to just focus on the little piece but really do have an understanding of the full picture and how all of that plays a role in making the community better.”

She gained even greater perspective about the importance of economic development in her next few endeavors, which in addition to earning her Master of Science in Management and Leadership from Troy University, also included a stint as a Regional Project Manager with the Georgia Department of Economic Development and a return to Albany as the Director for the Department of Community and Economic Development.

In that role Latoya said she was satisfied and was able to further impact the community, but then a personal need to make a difference closer to home actually led her to take a two-year hiatus to spend more time with her son during his junior and senior years at Deerfield Windsor.

“You know, you have to make a lot of sacrifices to be in roles like that and sometimes one of the sacrifices you make is family, and it kind of hit home to me,” Latoya said. “I found myself so engaged in work to where I wasn’t able to make a game. Or he’s the last one there at school waiting on me to pick him up and I’m like, ‘give me 15 more minutes, 20 more minutes.’ It’s 6:30-7:00 p.m. when you leave work and you do finally get there to pick him up and he’s the last one there. Then I’d get home and about 30 minutes later, guess what I’m doing? I start back working.

“So I’m working at work and I’m working at home and I just felt like those last two years of his life at home, I didn’t want to send him off to college and feel like I never had that final opportunity to connect with him.”

Latoya said she worked out a 90-day notice and subsequently enjoyed two of what she says were some of the most fulfilling years of her life.

“You can’t even imagine it,” she said with wide smile. “Every game, I didn’t miss them. If there was something going on at school, a parent meeting, whatever, he could call and instead of wondering if I would answer or wondering when I would return his call, I would answer and I could be there.

“That was the best feeling in the world and I’m just glad I got a chance to do that before he went to college.”

Once her son was off at college though, it didn’t take long for the lure to help the community through economic development began to draw her back in. Although she didn’t apply for the downtown manager position following the departures of Aaron Blair and Charlene Cannon, she eventually threw her hat in the ring so she could again try to make a difference Albany.

“I’ve always cared about Albany; I’ve always cared about the community and tried to, in the roles that I’ve been in, make a difference and always do it with a can-do attitude,” she said of her thought process prior to applying for the downtown manager role. “But the politics and the stress that came along with it have always been the parts that I liked the least. So for that reason I didn’t want to apply and initially for the first go around I didn’t.

“Then my husband said, ‘I think you should apply.’ And I told him, ‘I just don’t know.’ And he said, ‘LaToya, just apply,’ and I said, ‘okay, I’ll apply.’ And I applied.”

She said an important part of her motivation to ultimately seek the position was likely informed by her time in Americus where she gained an appreciation for that downtown and even worked in that area at Scott’s Jewelers while in college.

“My drive and passion for the revitalization of downtown Albany may have been shaped by the experiences that I had in Downtown Americus—shopping next door to the jewelry store at Kinnebrew’s Clothing Store, going across the street to the local drug store to get a soda, peering out of the window at the beautiful, historical Windsor Hotel, the Saturday ritual of walking past the historic Rylander Theater while on my way to Monroe’s Hot Dogs for 2 chili dogs and a piece of homemade pound cake, and the vibrant image of individuals, couples and families walking on the sidewalks,” she informed me wistfully.

Perhaps the biggest motivations to apply for Albany’s downtown manager opening, however, were the support for downtown she had seen from city leadership and the belief that she had the mindset and the skill set to impact positive change in this community.

“There was more emphasis being placed on downtown redevelopment,” said Latoya. “I said, ‘you know, maybe that means there’s a commitment from leadership and that means that I can actually be a part of making some things happen.’

“And I also felt like because from 97 on I had been here and being able to be here I felt like I knew the community. I may not necessarily like being a part of the politics, but I think I understand the politics. And I think it helps to know the community in order to be able to make things happen. And I felt like because of that I had a unique skill set that could maybe help to make those things happen, and move downtown forward.”

Although she repeatedly deflected credit for the exciting things going on in downtown Albany away from herself and toward the developers and others in the community who have worked hard to start moving the needle, it was obvious to me that Latoya’s ability to connect people to resources, her diligence in communicating what’s happening to the citizens of Albany, and most importantly, her views about how to achieve positive economic development, have been an important factors in driving the progress in downtown Albany.

“It’s an inside out approach to economic development,” she said of her philosophy on what is working in Albany. “This community is a bit unique and you have to have buy-in from people if you’re actually going to do things. And they have to feel comfortable with what you’re doing.

“It means kind of finding your way and finding the things that can work here. Anytime I’ve been asked or interviewed about the microbrewery or I talk about Albany Heights, I always emphasize, or try to reemphasize, the fact that those are local people that are doing that. And to have that kind of investment being made from local people, that’s a part of that approach of inside out development.

“I think people, if they see you aiding and nurturing and partnering with local people to make things happen, it’s a lot more acceptable than if you just bring some person from the outside to try to aid them. They like seeing local people try to help build this community up and they’re a lot more apt to be on board with that.”

Despite all the support she’s received from the community in regard to the microbrewery and the Albany Heights development, Latoya said he knows there will always be people who will doubt whether or not downtown Albany can be revitalized and those who will say she and the others who are working to improve the area are not doing enough.

Fortunately, she said she is good at compartmentalizing things and fully believes that the ADICA and DDA teams, along with city leaders, have a plan that will work for downtown Albany. She said all potential projects are fully vetted and that a great deal of work is put into making sure the ones that move forward fit into that plan.

“Economic development takes time,” she explained. “Every project, you’d like it to be one of those things where you have a conversation with somebody today and then in another two months you’re having a ribbon cutting. Unfortunately it’s not that way.

“You’re trying to make sure that you don’t just do projects. You could make announcements every day about projects. We have people that come that want to open businesses and we could just say, ‘yes, we’ll find you a space here.’ But we’re being very intentional about what’s happening downtown.

“We want it to be a place where people can live, where they can work, where they can play, but not just some people. We want all people. People have all these perceptions about downtown Albany and who it’s for and who it’s not for and if you’re going to change the landscape of what downtown looks like—and that’s demographically and otherwise—I think you have to intentionally go out of your way, when you’re doing events, when you’re doing things—to try and be inclusive to make sure that people start to feel like downtown Albany is a place for everybody.”

Truly it’s sentiments like that, coupled with her thoughtful approach to development and her driving need to improve this community for everyone’s benefit, that make me feel that Latoya Cutts is an asset to all of Albany, not just downtown.

I left our meeting feeling reenergized about the heart of the city and excited to see what great things lay on the horizon.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen