When he retired, millionaire businessman Harvey Robbins went back to his hometown of Tuscumbia, Alabama - and started a renaissance.

In Tuscumbia, Alabama, everybody knows Harvey Robbins.

Inside the Palace, a soda fountain and drugstore originally built in the 1800s and now a hangout for local residents, the bustling lunchtime crowd gravitates to his table. A young mother and her three exceedingly polite, identically dressed boys stop to tell him about Little League. The mayor, Bill Shoemaker, stops by to share tidbits from Monday's city-council meeting. Between bites of a hamburger, Robbins greets them, and the well-wishers keep coming, all because of what they can see outside the Palace windows.

Nestled in the northwest corner of the state and known, if at all, as the birthplace of Helen Keller, Tuscumbia looks and feels on this cool, overcast day like an impossibly idyllic image of small-town America. Shoppers stroll the neatly manicured downtown streets, passing buildings that have stood since the town was a major railroad hub, a primary jumping­-off point for passengers heading west from New York and Boston. In shop windows are yellow ribbons and messages welcoming, by name, members of an Alabama National Guard unit returning home from Iraq.

As the Palace patrons would attest, the view was quite different just a few years ago. Back then, the Palace was shuttered and silent, and downtown Tuscumbia was on the verge of disappearing. Its historic buildings were collapsing, and businesses had closed up or fled to the shopping centers and highways that ring the town. The streets were empty day and night.

That's when Robbins showed up. Or returned, actually. Robbins grew up in Tuscumbia and remembered it as a bustling little railroad town where he and his wife of 50-plus years, Joyce Ann, had kindled their romance over the Palace's ice cream. "I had been gone for some time, doing my thing in business over in the next county," says Robbins, who, with his neatly coiffed gray hair, button-down checkered shirt, and owlish, oversize glasses, has the look of a storybook grandfather. "[When] I got to looking at it years later, this town was drying up."

He decided to change that.