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Providing the Support: Often behind the scenes, the Callaway Foundation has led the effort to revitalize LaGrange’s downtown

Ten years ago, there was a lot of potential for a lasting, community-focused downtown LaGrange, but at that point, it was little more than a vision. After 5 p.m., downtown had little to no activity, and many of the amenities enjoyed today were years from becoming a reality.

At that time, there was no Sweetland Amphitheatre, brewery, downtown hotel, movie theater or Del’avant Event Center. The parking decks downtown weren’t built, and the additional amenities on their way — such as Southbend Park — were still years from being introduced to the community.

“When you came downtown in the evening, nobody was here,” said Speer Burdette, president of the Callaway Foundation. “There was no reason to come downtown. There were a few cars left over from the people in offices that were still there, but it was like a ghost town.”

That’s when the Callaway Foundation stepped in, forever changing downtown LaGrange and helping to turn it into a city that now is seldom lacking activity.

All of the projects listed above — from Sweetland to Southbend Park — were part of a comprehensive plan from the Callaway Foundation, a plan that is winding down after more than a decade of focusing on revitalizing downtown LaGrange.

About 12 years ago, the Callaway Foundation had a strategic plan created for downtown LaGrange. Burdette said even today, he keeps the plan on his desk.

At that point in time, the foundation elected to heed the advice of founder Fuller E. Callaway Jr. and decided to look inward, turning its attention back to LaGrange, instead of funding so many statewide projects.

“This was a result of the foundation thinking ‘we do a lot around the state, but Mr. Callaway was always saying that the money was predominately made here and wanted it to be predominately spent here,’” Burdette said. “That was a time when a lot of downtowns like LaGrange were in decline. All the new development had been shopping centers that were moving away from downtowns. These areas that were once the center for life and commerce were drying up.”

Although the plan is coming together, there have been significant changes. The downtown plan did envision a hotel for downtown, but it was near where Cleaveland Motors used to sit. It also had a movie theater mapped out, though it was planned for the corner of Bull Street and Vernon Street.

While it wasn’t perfect, the plan served as a guide — a reminder — of what the end goal was.

“While everything we’ve done hasn’t fallen exactly the way the strategic plan laid it out, the thinking of that plan kept us moving in that direction,” Burdette said.

The foundation, which was started in 1943, has devoted $50 million to downtown LaGrange over the last 10 years. The foundation’s main goal is to enhance the quality of life for the citizens of LaGrange and Troup County, and it uses its funding for that purpose.

“What can we do to enhance that? If you think about education, healthcare, recreation, religious life and building campaigns. Those are all quality of life issues,” Burdette said. “We have a great quality of life, but we are investing $10 million a year this year, the next year, the next year, the next year to continue to enhance the quality of life in LaGrange.”

The foundation started with a $1.4 million investment in 1943. Burdette said the Callaway Foundation has never received any additional funding, but has turned that original investment into more than $500 million. Each year the foundation must give away 5 percent of its corpus.

“That $1.4 million has created $350 million that we’ve given away, plus another $230 million that we still have,” Burdette said.

Burdette said a lot of people probably don’t realize that there are two separate Callaway Foundations. The smaller Fuller E. Callaway Foundation was founded in 1917, with its main focus on the operation of Hills & Dales Estate, the historic Callaway home and garden. It also funds three different scholarship programs — the George E. Sims Jr. Nursing Scholarship Program, administered by West Georgia Health System, the Hatton Lovejoy Scholarship Plan and the Hatton Lovejoy Graduate Studies Fund Program.

Meanwhile, the Callaway Foundation has focused on downtown for the last decade. The foundation is run by its board of trustees, but the president serves as an intermediary between the board and the public. Burdette has served as president since 2003, and in that time the Callaway Foundation has played a significant role in the growth of downtown LaGrange.

The proof is all over downtown, from Sweetland to Wild Leap. Of course, the foundation didn’t do it alone. The Callaway Foundation often partners with government entities, like the city of LaGrange or Troup County leaders, to complete a project.

“Sweetland was a vision of the Callaway Foundation, and it was predominantly paid for the by foundation, but the city and county played an important role in that,” Burdette said. “The downtown development authority manages and runs it, so you can see the partnership and synergy that works between the entities and the foundation.”

Other projects, such as the parking lot renovation behind Charlie Joseph’s and Solomon’s was something the foundation thought was needed. The foundation doesn’t want to maintain the parking lot long-term, so it leases the land to the city for a $1 a year and the city maintains it.

Del’avant Event Center, which was renovated and opened to the public in 2011, is now under the management of the Downtown LaGrange Development Authority. Burdette said he always knew it could be successful, but he’s very pleased with how things have played out at Del’avant so far.

“We weren’t sure how Del’avant was going to work. We thought it would be the success that it’s been, but Del’avant is an expensive building to maintain,” Burdette said. “We’ve been real pleased with how successful it’s been. We’re basically booked through May of 2019. It’s booked over a year in advance now. It’s just been extremely successful.”

In July 2016, Burdette and city leaders celebrated the District 4 Public Health’s new building, which kept more than 50 employees in LaGrange. The public health building had looked into moving to other nearby cities.

“We had this District 4 Public Health of 50-plus people that were looking at leaving town, that were located out in the industrial park and wanted to come downtown,” Burdette said.

The Callaway Foundation helped that happen, and in an article from that day, Burdette is quoted as looking ahead to the future of that part of town.

He hinted at big things coming, although nobody realized at that time that a brewery was going to be put into the Westbrook Tire building and that a large park would be on its way a short time after.

“We felt that was a great building with a lot of character and a brewery was a perfect use of that,” Burdette said of the Westbrook building. “We’re real pleased with how successful it’s been so far.”

Southbend Park is going to include a dog park, playground, a pavilion and a large grass field. It will be near Wild Leap Brew Co. and will include the city’s new skate park.

“That is moving forward, just as its been reported, and we should see some real activity out there soon. It should be done at some point this summer,” he said.

The foundation has also helped with the construction of Broad Street apartments for LaGrange College, as well as other projects.

Not every project is local, either, although they do usually have some sort of Troup County connection. For instance, the Callaway Foundation has given to the University of Georgia, the Georgia Institute of Technology and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, all entities that affect the lives of locals.

The Callaway Foundation has its hands in many different projects, but just like any other foundation, it often has to say ‘no’ to organizations asking for financial assistance.

Burdette said the first question he asks anyone presenting is simple and straight to the point: How will your organization benefit and better the lives of the residents of Troup County?

“If you’re coming to us from South Carolina, it’s going to be a pretty hard reach to explain how your primary mission is providing to the citizens of Troup County, Georgia,” he said.

Next, he asks for a plan showing how the organization will be sustainable once it’s no longer receiving monetary contributions from the Callaway Foundation.

“We want to be careful that we don’t give money to something that allows them to start, but once we leave they can’t continue to exist,” Burdette said. “We’ve wasted our money and their time if they are not able to build a business plan to be sustainable over a three-year period of time.”

Burdette said Harmony House is a great example of a nonprofit that started with help from the foundation, but quickly became self-sufficient.

“We helped them get started, funded a large portion of their operating costs to get going, but we phased that out over a three-year period of time,” Burdette said. “After three years, they had created a fundraising program, they had gotten grants from the state, and they are self-sustaining and have been. They are a perfect example of how that model works.”

After 10 years of working on downtown, the Callaway Foundation is seeing most of that work wind down. Most of the work planned has been completed, and the foundation is starting to look at where else it might be able to shift its focus.

Burdette said he knows the foundation wants to improve education next, although they haven’t nailed down exactly what that will look like.

It’s one thing to help pay for buildings and other amenities to be constructed, but it’s not as simple to figure out how cash can directly impact education scores and the future of local students.

“Now we are looking as we go into our next phase, what will be our focus?” Burdette said.

“It’s been downtown. And while we haven’t exactly overtly stated what that will be, one of the things we’ve found ourselves being pulled toward is continuing to support education — to ramp up the support of education.”