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BUSINESS PLANS

No Small Plans

Harvey Robbins's tiny hometown had become a shadow of its former self. So this self-made businessman decided to take matters into his own hands. Welcome to Tuscumbia, Ala.
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Tucked into the northwest part of red-clay Alabama, in Colbert County, sits Tuscumbia, a population-8,000 blip off old Highway 72. It's the home of Harvey Robbins, a hometown entrepreneur who in 1995 sold his life's work, a company called National Floor Products, for some $120 million. Robbins had planned on retiring with his wife of 52 years, Joyce Ann, into a life of golf, bass fishing, and traveling to every corner of the world. It didn't take. The Robbinses quickly realized their favorite corner of the world is in Alabama.

They returned to Tuscumbia. But the four-square-block downtown wasn't full of life the way they remembered it. Tuscumbia is the county seat, and a little bit of government business seemed to be all that was holding the town together. "When I came into office in 2000, you could shoot a rifle in the middle of Main Street at any time of the day and not hit anyone," says Mayor Wade Gann. "There was nothing going on downtown."

Nothing except Harvey Robbins.

One early evening in 1999 he and Joyce Ann were driving down an empty Main Street, and they stopped in front of an old soda fountain that had long been abandoned and forgotten. It had been the Deshler High School sweetheart hangout, and a courting spot for Harvey and Joyce Ann. The two were saddened by their hometown's drawn-out slide into irrelevancy. And here was the dilapidated evidence staring them in the face.

Robbins had found his later-in-life mission -- to make Tuscumbia vibrant again. Fortunately, he already had the infrastructure in place to make the changes he envisioned. In the late 1980s, he had established Robbins Property Development to renovate buildings he purchased and maintain properties he owned. So he had a crew of multitalented guys at his disposal as he went about building a 21st-century Tuscumbia. Whatever that meant. There was no prototype, no blueprint for resuscitating a town. Robbins and his people winged it, as they still do.

Initially, it wasn't a grand scheme; Robbins simply wanted to give folks a few shopping, dining, and entertainment options to bring foot traffic, which would bolster Tuscumbia's meager sales-tax receipts enough to pay for civic improvements. Soon the plan grew more ambitious. To make Tuscumbia self-sustaining, the town's coffers needed filling, and that wasn't going to happen with a handful of stores that often closed at the whim of the owners and were always locked by 5 p.m. "Like Harvey says, you can't sell from an empty wagon," says David Blazer, vice president of Robbins Property Development and the guy who makes the backhoes run on time.

Blazer spearheaded phase 1 of Robbins's vision: a makeover of the town's traditional center, Spring Park. It worked from the get-go. Crowds flocked to see the new 48-foot-high waterfall, a bronze statue memorializing Chickasaw Princess Im-Mi-Ah-Key, a replica train running on 4,000 feet of track, and the piece de resistance, a choreographed fountain, music, and light show modeled on the Dancing Waters at Opryland.

Robbins then turned his sights on the abandoned ice cream shop that got him thinking about civic revitalization in the first place. It's now the Palace, an ice cream parlor and local social center decorated with items turned up in the renovation. Robbins poured well over a million and a half dollars into Spring Park, the Palace, Cold Water Books, the Pilot House restaurant, and some new apartments. He never wanted all the financial and managerial burden, though, so he decided to help other small-business owners help him revive Tuscumbia.

Robbins is the benevolent landlord for many of the new businesses that have popped up in town, offering reasonable rents, whatever renovations owners desire, and advice...if they ask. He encourages stores that draw consumers with a higher level of disposable income by offering specialty items not found at Wal-Mart. Robbins's main goal is that all the properties he owns and manages bring in a 1% monthly return, so that the bottom line (that is, Tuscumbia itself) stays healthy. Here are some stories from Harvey Robbins's thriving new hometown.

A town's roots

No store represents the nostalgic everything-old-is-new-again feel in Tuscumbia quite like Coldwater Seed & Supply. Dwight James, a banker in town for 23 years, was interested in buying the business, which had been a farming mainstay since the 1930s, but it needed a thorough cleaning and repair job and he didn't want to run up debt fixing it. James paid a visit to his old high school classmate David Blazer and was assured that Robbins Property Development would do the necessary plumbing, painting, and relighting to make the store more viable. James follows the Robbins pattern and offers a wide range of hard-to-find products, including some 150 different varieties of seeds. The antique red-oak bins filled with Rattlesnake pole beans, Kentucky Wonder bush beans, Truckers Favorite white corn, and Better Boy sweet tomatoes lure gardening enthusiasts and self-sustaining farmers from five counties. And since his customers are DIY types, James has brought in live baby chicks, turkeys, and ducks for holiday feasts. So far, so good: One early-planting-season afternoon James had 143 customers. "Harvey's led a renaissance," he says. "I never envisioned Tuscumbia making the turnaround."

Her own style

Leslie Keys knew one thing long before she ever pursued her dream of owning a women's clothing store: It would bear the name of her grandmother Audie Mescal. Harvey Robbins himself coaxed Keys to leave her job as a recruiter at the nearby University of North Alabama to open the first new store in Tuscumbia that he didn't own. Robbins even stepped up after five banks decided Keys's business plan for the boutique was too much of a risk -- primarily because of the location and perceived lack of clientele-by guaranteeing the $90,000 loan, remodeling the store, and renting her the apartment above it. Audie Mescal opened in July 2002, and Keys has been able to establish a customer base by offering fashionable clothing that isn't found in other area shops. She has built a mailing list of 1,200 names by creating a warm atmosphere of personal attention, such as calling loyal customers when she gets in an outfit they might like, hosting UNA fashion shows, addressing women's groups, and throwing wine-and-cheese parties to introduce new collections. Audie Mescal is the store Keys envisioned but might never have created on her own.

Rebecca's belle gowns

"It does my heart good to have to look around Tuscumbia for a parking place," says Rebecca Underwood. Promenade, the store she opened in 2001, is a particularly southern kind of institution; it specializes in dresses for proms, pageants, and other formal occasions of the sort much loved in Alabama. Underwood had a successful home-based gown-rental business, but opened up the storefront in her hometown after Robbins not only allowed her to design the shop with David Blazer, but picked up 99% of the construction tab as well (within a budget, of course). "I wanted space for my girls," she says, "with footlights on a ramp leading to a wall of mirrors." Promenade is one of only three stores in Alabama affiliated with the National Prom Association, so the big manufacturers send Underwood exclusive colors and styles, and in 2004 Promenade has gone from 12 lines to 40. The business is working so well that three people have stopped in to let Underwood know they're interested in buying, if and when she's selling. That day is a ways off, though, because she recently had Robbins Property Development add another 1,000 square feet to Promenade.

Slide on over

Foot traffic is foot traffic. And since people like to follow a banana split with a stroll, all the Main Street merchants benefit, even those that were operating long before Harvey Robbins started drawing up blueprints. Take the Nylon Sew Sew Shop, which had been open for 35 years before Fredia Rice purchased it in 1995. "You always know who's been at the Palace because they walk in with ice cream cones," says Rice (left, with employees Mary Anne Willis, center, and Bernice Taylor). "It's generated sales for us because so many people stop to see what else is here." What shoppers find in Rice's store are hand-sewn items made of nylon, everything from fitted king sheets ($25 and up) to burial shrouds ($75) to caftans ($27) and nightcaps ($5). And just because the Nylon Sew Sew Shop has been around a while, don't think it's not a 21st-century retailer. Rice's online business has been growing, with customers from all over buying her airy e-commerce wares, and not only women. "I tell men," she says, "once you try nylon boxers, you will never go back."

Keys to success

Selling pianos is a low-volume business, so it wasn't the upturn in tourist traffic that enticed Brandon Romans to open Romans Piano in 2003. Romans chose his Main Street address because no other retail option came close to matching his pianist's ideal: a well-stocked, spacious store that feels like a cozy nook where ivories would actually be tickled. "I wanted the atmosphere and character of a 19th-century Victorian parlor room, where you can imagine the instrument in your home," says Romans. To that end, Robbins Property Development refurbished the original tin ceilings and wood floors of the space, and added French doors, as well as a separate chamber where a local teacher now gives lessons on a baby grand. Romans is happy to be part of a burgeoning tight-knit community of retailers who look out for one another -- more so since the ranks now include a distant relative. Restaurateur Rocky Romans moved back home to Tuscumbia and opened a branch of his Nashville Mexican eatery, Loco Lupes, after getting wind of Robbins's efforts.

Raise a glass

"A town isn't a town without pizza and beer," says Harvey Robbins. Well, he'll soon be able to sit down with David Blazer (above left) and his newest employee, Harvey Robbins III (above right), for a coal-oven pie at this yet-to-be-named pizza shop, which is owned by Harvey's daughter Beverly. For Harvey and his wife, Joyce Ann, the rewards of the rebirth of Main Street go far beyond a few more places to eat and shop. "Everyone in town is so happy and grateful that this ranks as high as any stage of our lives," says Joyce Ann. "I think Tuscumbia needs a little more prodding and a few more businesses, but other people are moving forward, and it's becoming a pleasant little town by itself." At right, Harvey Robbins sits at the restored soda fountain at the Palace. The place exists because Robbins decided he wanted to use his fortune to make Main Street matter again. But Robbins also wanted something much simpler: a milk shake, a thick one served in a stainless steel cup that holds three fills per glass goblet. And he thought others in his hometown of Tuscumbia might enjoy one as well.

Last updated: Dec 1, 2004




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