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Lula looks to grow with the times

Huge new developments and downtown revitalization will alter face of East Hall city

POSTED: February 28, 2008 5:01 a.m.
Robin Michener Nathan The Times/

The old L.E. Morris & Son Trust Worthy Hardware store is in the downtown Lula area where revitalization is planned.

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LULA -- More than 100 years ago, Lula was established as a sleepy railroad hub between Athens and Atlanta. A rectangle one mile wide and two miles long encompassed the entire city that spread out from the railroad tracks parallel to Main Street.

During the past century, small-scale subdivisions have sprouted up in Lula as quaint businesses opened their doors to a trickle of customers on Main Street. In 1956, Lula officials signed a charter with the city of Belton, and to date boast a nearly 4.5-square-mile municipality with about 2,500 residents.

Although Lula still remains true to its small- town railroad roots, high-volume developers have big plans for the little town's backyard.

In January, two Austrian brothers, Felix and Ferdinand Mayr-Melnhof, got the green light from the Hall County Board of Commissioners to build a 2,736-home subdivision on a 1,507-acre tract of land located east of Ga. 52 and north of Ga. 365 along Belton Bridge Road. The master-planned community, named Hagen Creek for the stream that flows through it, will include a 20-acre school site, 1 million square feet of commercial space, and possibly an 18-hole golf course and a lake.

Although the site of the Hagen Creek subdivision rests just outside Lula city limits, and is not likely to be annexed into the city, Lula Mayor Milton Turner said the development will have a definite impact on the nearby railroad town.

"It will change Lula as we know it," Turner said. "It's overwhelming. (Hagen Creek) is about triple the population of what Lula is now. It will be a small city there, no doubt."

Carl Nichols, manager of Hagen Creek, said construction on the mega-development could begin within the next two years, and could be finished within 15 years. But he said Lula residents need not mourn the loss of Lula's small-town charm just yet.

"We think that Lula retaining its small-town feel is very important to the whole community there," Nichols said. "For (Hagen Creek) to work, Lula must maintain what it is. The best days are ahead of Lula."

Nichols added that he strongly encourages the redevelopment of downtown Lula so that the city may establish an economic identity that can serve as an asset to the nearby development.

Multiple storefronts on Lula's downtown Main Street now are mostly unoccupied, but Turner has hopes of revealing the sparkle of economic promise. He aims to polish off those dusty windows in an attempt to attract the thousands of potential customers living in Hagen Creek that will be flooding the Lula area.

Turner said Lula's recently established downtown development authority is planning a streetscape project that will lead the remodeling effort on storefronts, with the aim of attracting various businesses to Main Street. Turner said the project will include the building of new sidewalks and street lights on a seven-block stretch of Main Street in an effort to draw pedestrian traffic.

In addition to the streetscape project, Turner said the city is planning a veterans' memorial park with fountains on the corner of Athens and Main streets across from the railroad depot replica. The $650,000 park will cover less than an acre of downtown Lula, and will be financed with public and private funds.

"We've got two years to get the streetscape, the park and redevelopment of downtown finished before Hagen Creek starts developing. That way we can keep stuff happening downtown so everything doesn't move over there (to Hagen Creek)," Turner said.

"We're trying to revitalize downtown to keep that old downtown hometown atmosphere. We want people to know that when they come to downtown, they are in the old section of Lula as opposed to what's going to be along (Ga.) 365."

With the planning process of the Lula sewer treatment plant under way, Turner said he aims to invite commercial growth to the area. It can be supported by the new city sewer that will be up and running within two years. Turner said the $6.5 million sewer plant will be built on a 27-acre site off Ga. 52, located near The Plantation subdivision, and will have an initial capacity of 400,000 gallons.

Turner said Hagen Creek developers have yet to determine whether the subdivision will operate on the city's sewer, which will be located adjacent to the development. But last year, Hall County bought 100,000 gallons of capacity from the Lula sewer plant to support anticipated business development on the Ga. 365 corridor south of Ga. 52, Turner said. He added that the Lula sewer plant will be built in phases that could allow the plant to support up to 2 million gallons of sewer capacity.

"We're planning for the future; this is not a little fly-by-night operation," Turner said. "We're planning for the future of this town."

With the promise of additional sewer, the city isn't the only one taking steps to stimulate Lula's economy. Private developers are taking an interest in the residential, industrial and professional opportunities Lula holds.

More rooftops coming
In addition to Hagen Creek, small subdivisions are cropping up in Lula. Recently, the 98-home Rivermist subdivision was built on Old Cornelia Highway. Turner said only a handful of homes in the subdivision remain under construction.

Another subdivision, Waterford Glenn on Railroad Avenue, is in the early stages of construction. Turner said the first eight of 120 planned homes are being built.

And the residential growth doesn't stop there. Yet another subdivision is being proposed for Railroad Avenue. Butler Murphy of Gainesville is proposing a 105-home subdivision on a 43-acre tract in Lula that rests in Banks County.

Lula City Council will hold a public hearing at 5:30 p.m. Monday at city hall to allow residents' feedback on the project that would require the city to annex two acres of the proposed 43-acre subdivision. Council will consider the subdivision proposal at 7 p.m. Monday.

Private landowners are also in the process of master-planning a roughly 300-acre office and professional business park in the corridor between Athens Street, Ga. 52 and Ga. 365, though plans for the park have to get approval from Lula and Hall County officials, Turner said.

And a 52-acre industrial park which also will include 106 homes is already under construction on Mountain View Road in Lula. Turner said the residential component of the 52-acre development, dubbed Hills of Mountain View, is largely complete, and work on the first light-industry office, a cabinet shop, is under way.

Lula City Manager Dennis Bergin said the industrial park will support brick office-warehouse condominiums, and Turner added that the park could have as many as 17 office suites with warehouse opportunities. "I've stressed getting some jobs here and keeping tax dollars here," Turner said.

Hall County Commissioner Steve Gailey, who represents District 3 which encompasses Lula, was among the commissioners who unanimously approved the Hagen Creek development. He said it was perhaps the largest residential development commissioners have ever approved in Hall County.

Gailey said he believes the subdivision will stimulate the economy of downtown Lula, and the 1 million square feet of office space within the mega-development may bring high-tech jobs to the Lula area, as well as a big-name grocery store.

"I think (Hagen Creek) will bring things to the area they've been wanting for a long time, like shopping centers, a drug store and restaurants," Gailey said.

Gailey noted that except for the Waffle House on Ga. 52, there's not even a fast-food restaurant in the Lula area.

Keep the small-town feel
John Vardeman, who served as chairman of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce in 2005 and 2006, said the Hagen Creek development falls in line with the chamber's Vision 2030 plan for Hall County.

Vardeman was chairman of the chamber's board when the Vision 2030 plan was devised, with input from a cross section of area residents and officials.

Vardeman, whose public relations firm is also working for the Hagen Creek developers, said the subdivision meets the 15 tenets of Vision 2030.

"We as Hall County, we want to remain a community of towns, plural," Vardeman said. "We don't want to be a look-alike area, like Gwinnett, where everything is sort of similar. We want each town to retain its individual character, but to be connected as a community."

Vardeman added that as a dual representative of the Hagen Creek development and the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, he wants to see Lula retain its small-town character.

Will Lula disappear?
But with the 750,000-square-foot retail development planned for Ga. 365 in addition to the Lula projects and Hagen Creek subdivision, Lula councilwoman Vicky Chambers, who also owns a business downtown, said she believes Lula as she knows it will be no more.

"I think that Lula and this area is about to explode with growth, with people moving in and businesses moving in on the (Ga.) 365 corridor," Chambers said. "I think there's a good chance (that small-town feel) is a thing of the past. I think it's a thing of the past for Hall County."

Chambers' business, Around the Corner Florist and Garden Shop, is located in a renovated historic home on Athens Street in downtown Lula. She said she believes the Hagen Creek retail space and the 750,000-square-foot retail development on Ga. 365 will draw Lula customers, and could augment the business of downtown Lula, but could come at the cost of increased density and traffic congestion.

"It's both scary and rewarding," Chambers said of the new development that she said many Lula residents are eyeing warily. "You either grow or you get stale. So we've got to grow. We have no choice."

A. Grady Alexander, a 30-year resident of Lula, said he welcomes the change, especially if it will bring jobs to the area. He said many Lula residents currently commute to jobs in Cornelia, Gainesville and even Atlanta.

"This place has been dead for a long time. There ain't nothing in Lula to do," Alexander said, adding that the new development will likely bring entertainment, jobs and stability to the area.

"If you've got the people there, the businesses will come. Some people around here are not working and would be if there were more jobs."

Turner said he wants Lula to grow, particularly in the commercial realm, but not at the cost of its small-town identity. "Without growth, I feel like a community becomes stagnant," Turner said. "Even though things do change, we never want to lose that small-town atmosphere."

But until Lula becomes the thriving city in East Hall that Turner envisions, he said he'll keep making mayoral decisions based on the slogan posted above the entrance to the Lula City Council chambers at city hall: "Growth by Choice. Not by Chance."


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