A youth waving a revolver burst into the Cricket Wireless store just north of downtown Rossville in early July, and he and his partner got away with $489 in cash.
The hold-up was the shop's third in six months by what police believe were gang members who kept coming back to tap the cellular store for cash.
Fed up, store managers acted. They bolted doors during business hours, so customers now have to be buzzed in. Cricket added cameras to its surveillance system and erected pointy metal fencing to guard the store from the alley, an easy place for robbers to hide.
Managers said they even thought about moving -- but since there's already a store in Fort Oglethorpe and Chattanooga, they don't think there is anywhere else to go.
"It's either we stay here or close," manager Brandon Ashley said.
Rossville officials hope to revitalize their once-booming downtown, but repeated robberies at the Cricket store and elsewhere this year have some retailers wary and could discourage others from setting up shop.
The downtown area is bisected by U.S. Highway 27, known as Chickamauga Avenue in Rossville and Rossville Boulevard in Chattanooga.
The boulevard is one of the busiest routes between Georgia and Tennessee outside of Interstate 75.
Yet even the promise of heavy customer traffic may not be enough to overcome crime in an area populated by smoke shops, pawn stores and vacant storefronts.
And that isn't the only challenge facing Rossville officials and current or prospective merchants. Business owners cite other problems, ranging from the city not mowing the grass on the busy avenue to competition from shopping centers in Fort Oglethorpe and the Chattanooga malls.
Councilman Hal Gray, who was elected last week to the Rossville Downtown Development Authority, acknowledges that attracting businesses other than pawnshops and car lots could improve the local economy and the overall esthetics.
Gray, a retired police officer, wants to attract businesses like a Red Lobster or a Lowe's Home Improvement that could generate jobs and contribute to the depleting property tax pool.
"We could do it," he said. "Right now it depends on how the economy goes."
Mayor Teddy Harris says downtown redevelopment is key to the city's future. He has faith in the Downtown Development Authority, where he served on the board for eight years, and believes DDAs are best suited to draw in new business.
Business in Rossville has been on the wane for years, with the biggest milestone in the city's history arguably being a 1967 fire that destroyed one-third of the Peerless Mill, once one of the world's largest woolen mills. It employed more than 3,000 people at one time and its well-being and the city's were intertwined.
While city officials hope the mill site can be developed, they don't expect that level of employment ever to come back there.
"If this city is going to be saved, it's going to be through the DDA," Harris said.
With a clever name and an upscale clientele, Reliks vintage furniture store seemed to take a step toward gentrifying downtown two years ago when it opened in leased space on Chickamauga Avenue at the state line.
But two months ago, Reliks' owners relocated to Ringgold Road in East Ridge. Reliks' co-owner Carl Rupinski said crime was one of the reasons for leaving.
"Crime was just one of many reasons," Rupinski said. "Crime's an issue anywhere, now. It's all over the place. It's not just Rossville. I didn't feel unsafe there. You just have to be prepared and hope it doesn't happen."
Across the street from the now-empty Reliks store, shoplifting is so common at the Family Dollar at 115 Chickamauga Ave. that a recording interrupts music over the loudspeakers and asks customers to alert cashiers to thieves.
Armed robbers struck multiple times this year near downtown Rossville.
In January, a Family Dollar clerk was robbed at gunpoint by a middle-aged man who asked the employee, "Do we have an understanding?"
Three employees at the Hardee's at 300 McFarland Ave. were forced to the back of the restaurant at 4 a.m. on Aug. 17. The manager was ordered to open the safe and cash registers or she would be shot. The two hold-up men escaped, apparently on foot, with $775 in cash.
Police say armed robberies have doubled from six last year to 13, while burglaries have stayed about the same -- 44 so far this year and 46 in 2011.
Detective Dave Scroggins blames the rash of robberies on a group of youths -- white and black, male and female -- that he believes could be involved in a gang.Scroggins says the suspects escape across the state line, making them more difficult to catch.
Rossville police are working with Chattanooga police to catch the culprits, who also are robbing fast-food restaurants and convenience stores on Rossville Boulevard.
Chattanooga police Sgt. Scott Bales admits that Rossville Boulevard is a problem area, and gangs spontaneously rob the area in large groups.
But the robberies there aren't worse than in some other bad locations across Chattanooga, and the police couldn't justify using patrol tactics such as saturating Highway 27 with extra officers, Bales said.
Councilman Gray likes the idea of beefing up the 10-officer police force that patrols the 1.8-square-mile city and its 4,105 residents.
No matter what the solution, council members say they know how important it is to take care of their small businesses and they aren't going to give up.
"My vision for Rossville is to have a clean, safe town that people enjoy living in," said Councilman Rick Buff, a lifelong Rossville resident.
Police 'pretty good'
Some Rossville business owners say police are doing everything they can, stepping up patrols where robberies occurred and circling at closing time.
"I'll usually see a cop right around the time I close [the Cricket store]," Ashley said. "They patrol around here pretty good."
Being held up at gunpoint doesn't seem to have fazed Peddapuli Rao, a clerk at Sunny Cigar & Smoke at 104 Chickamauga Ave.
Two youths wore bandannas to disguise their faces during an April 21 hold-up, Rossville police report said, and they told Rao and two customers to lie on the floor "or they would be shot in the head."
The youths took $200 from the female customer's purse, eight cartons of Newport cigarettes worth $368 and $500 from the cash register. Rao didn't know if the robbers have been caught.
"I don't really pay attention," he said Tuesday. "I'm alive, thank God. I'm OK."
It wasn't the first time Rao found himself on the wrong end of a gun.
He got shot in 2004, as he was working at a Mr. Zip gas station farther north on Rossville Boulevard. A robber got mad at him for not opening the safe quickly enough during a hold-up there.
"He shot me in my leg," Rao said with a shrug.
Competition a factor
This summer, ownership of the Peerless Mill reverted to the Hutchesons, the family that founded the mill in 1905. The Hutchesons have declined to talk about their plans for the mill, a now-dilapidated building with broken and missing window panes. But city officials hope to see the mill complex that sits on 27 acres at least cleaned up.
When Rupinski opened Reliks, he said city officials touted such proposed improvements as a farmer's market to be held in the heart of downtown. Those promises didn't materialize, he said.
"You don't see anything happening," Rupinski said. "Rossville doesn't even maintain the [Chickamauga Avenue] median. It's covered with weeds and stuff."
Rupinski said Highway 27 could flourish.
"It's the second-most traveled thoroughfare from Georgia into Tennessee after I-75," he said. "It's got a lot of potential there."
The La Dean Shop wedding dress store in downtown Rossville has been in business since 1949. Marianna Power started working there 23 years ago as a seamstress and bought the business in 2001. When she attended Rossville High School years ago, the Peerless Mill was humming and the city had four stores selling wedding dresses, she said.
"I've not had [crime] problems," Power said.
What has hurt, she said, is competition from mall stores.
David Perry, a white-haired man wearing a Harley-Davidson baseball cap and belt buckle, was shopping Tuesday at Rossville's Family Dollar. He blamed competition from Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., for the downtown's slide.
"Fort O. took Rossville's business," Perry said. "That's what killed Rossville -- Fort O. Before Fort O. built up, Rossville was booming."
Perry had a do-it-yourself take on Rossville's crime situation.
"I carry a gun," he said. "Round here, you just 'bout gotta carry. They put something in my face, I'm going to put something back in theirs."
But Councilman Buff has a milder approach to the problem. A restaurant owner himself, Buff believes business owners need to step up and protect themselves, lock their doors quickly around closing time and be cautious.
Meanwhile, the digital surveillance cameras, locked front door and new security fence seem to be working at Cricket Wireless.
Store manager Brandon Ashley saw two youths who he was sure planned to rob the store pull up in late summer and then drive away.
"That would have been the fourth time, but they took off," Ashley said.
Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...