The thinking was to create a reason for locals and visitors to come downtown to shop, eat and stroll through the historic district. At that time, sprawling shopping centers and malls ruled the retail world, while quaint downtowns were withering away and falling into disrepair and irrelevance.
Now, more than 30 years later, that investment is paying off for the town of 15,000 known for its German heritage and agricultural sector. Until two years ago, Cullman had been the state's largest dry city. Now that distinction has been bestowed on its northern neighbor and athletics rival Hartselle.
Flush with alcohol revenue, Cullman — a place where a church or bank appears to be on every street corner — is pumping cash into its downtown. The city has disbursed $250,000 from its alcohol fund to property owners — up to $5,000 each — who improve the look of their storefronts, Mayor Max Townson said. Another $250,000 has been put toward other downtown revitalization initiatives, and the city still has money left in the fund, he said.
"We asked the council to look at what we could do with these new funds and to not just dump them into the general fund but separate it so we could track it," Townson said.
The investment of public funds could be instructive for Decatur as its effort to restore historic downtown gains momentum. A similar facade grant program is available through the Decatur Downtown Redevelopment Authority, which operates with private donations and public appropriations. DDRA also offers grants to property owners who install expensive sprinkler systems in their aging buildings to meet fire safety codes.
As new shops and eateries open on the street level, the next step is creating demand for loft apartments in the second and third floors of properties.
"The value of properties has to increase for there to be an incentive for property owners to make that big investment to do residential," said Wally Terry, the city of Decatur's community and economic development director.
While Decatur has extended revenue-sharing incentive packages to encourage large retail developers — namely Decatur Mall owners Garrison Investment Group out of New York City and Market Shoppes developer Blackwater Resources of Birmingham — there's been no discussion of allowing downtown property owners to retain revenue generated by new economic activity in exchange for investments in their buildings. The city does not collect taxes on apartments, but owners must obtain an annual business license based on gross receipts.
While Cullman and Decatur are different in many ways — from demographics to location to their beginnings — both are alike in that they want to capitalize on a new urbanism movement and a collective nostalgia for the things sweeping the South's small towns and cities.
"Our history and heritage is something we want to hold on to and preserve because it's special," said Julie Burks with the Cullman County Museum. "I think downtown is resurgent because you can be more leisurely about your shopping. You can step into a little shop and find something unique that you wouldn't find anywhere else."
Many in Cullman can recite the story of its founding by Col. John Gottfried Cullmann, who in 1873 cast an appreciative eye across its rolling hills that reminded him of the German countryside where he grew up. They're proud of their city's wide streets that Cullmann designed as he envisioned a metropolis that would need room for growth.
Church steeples form most of Cullman's skyline, as its residents are devout and diverse with Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians.
On April 27, 2011, a tornado demolished blocks of historic buildings and homes on the east side. The towering oak trees that had shaded the neighborhood for decades are gone.
But residents have spent the past two years cleaning up and building back, and many are seizing the opportunity to put up buildings that are more traditional in design, borrowing elements from the historic buildings that survived.
"I hate to say this, but that tornado may have been a blessing in some ways," said Raymond Young, who owns downtown icon Mary Carter shoes, paint and hardware stores. "It gave us a spark, and now there's been a lot of interest in downtown."
Young has run the store for nearly 50 years. The building was built in 1890 as a bank and takes up nearly an entire block of Fourth Street Southeast. Young, his wife and his adult son were in the shop when the tornado hit. All, including the building, were spared. However, the cupola on the roof was thrown into the street.
"There was a time when you couldn't find a parking spot on Saturdays downtown because there were so many people out," Young said as he stood outside the shop, staring down the street as cars passed by. "But then there was a time when no one was left but the oldtimers like myself. In the past twenty years or so, it's slowly begun to come back, and since the tornado, well, it's really taken off."
Young is one of many property owners — lawyers, accountants, financial advisers and boutiques — taking advantage of the city's facade program.
New white awnings are going up reminiscent of the original ones the building had when it was first erected. Its original doors, which had been gathering dust in the attic for years, will replace pieces of plywood with "Open" scrawled on it in white spray paint. The original door knob face plates, with detailed art nouveau design gleaming from restoration, will be hung on them.
"If the city can afford it, it's more than worth the investment," Young said of the facade grant. "People need to freshen up their stores if they want more people to come down and shop."
Around the corner, the only thing left behind from the tornado that destroyed Lee Powell's insurance business and home is an old Royal Crown Cola sign. His building had been an old Nehigh bottling business.
The Mobile native restored the first floor where he ran Powell Insurance before turning the second floor into living quarters for his family. Powell, his wife and young daughter hadn't lived there a year when the tornado swept it away.
But with the insurance money he received, Powell rebuilt with nearly an identical floor plan and had plans to begin moving furniture in this weekend. The rusted RC sign hangs in a sleek bar room he's built in the back that leads out to a connected two-car garage.
His second floor has all modern appliances, a gas fireplace, wood flooring and two balcony porches overlooking the city. Many residents see the Powell building as a model to follow as the city pursues loft apartment development.
"We're living above the office for the economics of it," Powell said as he vacuumed dust from the floor. "That's what people used to do a long time ago: run the business downstairs and live upstairs. We want to get back to that."