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Gainesville officials, businesses remain optimistic on future of Midtown

Developers are looking to attract more investment

POSTED: September 15, 2012 11:59 p.m.

The gleaming white pedestrian bridge spanning Gainesville’s Jesse Jewell Parkway doesn’t seem to fit in with the architectural landscape of 1980s-era brown brick government buildings.

When it opened after several delays at the end of August, city officials called the press to capture Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan be the first to cross the bridge, holding the hands of two grandchildren, each taking steps that seemed to symbolize the city’s progress toward Midtown’s redevelopment.

City officials took even more steps in the months that came before and the weeks that followed.

Officials in the city’s planning department continue to work on a greenway project that seeks to make the district walkable, and years ago set up a special tax district to provide infrastructure funds to spur redevelopment.

And Thursday, City Council agreed on a financing plan to buy the old Hall County Jail, which takes up a major block in the middle of the district on Main Street.

It was the latest sign that city officials continue to march toward a 10-year-old plan for a renewed Midtown.

But as those responsible for the complementary private investment in the district seem to be dragging their feet, public trust in the government’s investments isn’t as visible as the criticism.

There’s the notorious nickname of “bridge to nowhere” used by many an online commentator, and the accusations that the bridge is a shining example of government waste.

It’s easy to catch on to the meaning of the nickname.

When ideas of the bridge were first conceived, the overhead walkway would connect the Georgia Mountains Center to a 250-room hotel and a high-rise office complex.

But today, the city-owned convention center is soon to become a complex for Brenau University’s graduate students. And from there, the bridge leads to what is, so far, little more than a developer’s dream.

The development planned on the other side of the pedestrian bridge was supposed to be the keystone project of the Midtown redevelopment plan.

Back in 2008, when city officials were making plans to get out of an old police and fire station on the south side of Jesse Jewell by 2010 to make room for the new development, Lee Caswell, a representative from Gainesville City Center LLC (then called City View Center) said construction on the high-rise hotel and office building complex would begin in early 2009.

The civil engineering plans developers submitted to the city for Phase I called for a 125,000-square-foot, nine-story office building and a three-story parking deck with 376 spaces.

Developers told the city they wanted to build the bridge before the hotel, hoping it might make the site more attractive to convention center hotel operators.

Fast forward one month shy of four years later.

The city’s police and fire headquarters have moved to Queen City Parkway. But nothing rises higher on the Gainesville City Center property than a blade of grass.

Caswell didn’t return calls for comment on the state of the development last week.

But Gainesville City Manager Kip Padgett said the developers meet with city officials every few months to discuss the status of their project.

In the last such meeting, the developers indicated their priority is now attracting a hotel operator, Padgett said.

The economic recession has, at best, delayed plans for the original Phase I of the development as several office buildings currently sit vacant in the city.

“There’s so much available office space right now in Gainesville I think they changed their focus (to) the hotel,” Padgett said. “They indicated the market was looking better for the hoteliers. With the bridge being completed, they hoped the site would attract a hotelier.”

If plans change from the original intent to develop two office buildings and a hotel, they will have to go through a City Council-level approval process, Padgett said.

“They are still focused on developing that site,” Padgett said.

And while the bridge was always supposed to connect the city’s downtown and midtown districts, city officials’ focus on that benefit now overshadows its connection of the Georgia Mountains Center and the hotel-office complex.

The city’s community development director, Rusty Ligon, says a new $500,000 grant from the Georgia Department of Transportation will pay for a series of sidewalk improvements along Parker, Main, College and Bradford streets that will connect the bridge to the Midtown Greenway.

The grant will also pay for an extension from the greenway’s current end on Martin Luther King to Industrial Boulevard.

Ligon’s office gets first pass at all developers’ plans citywide. And while private investment in midtown has been slow to match the city investment, Ligon said it doesn’t mean nothing is happening there.

“We do see some activity,” Ligon said. “We’re continuing to talk with the people that are interested in locating there.”

Those same people, Ligon said, like what they see from the city’s investment. But when those developers decide to do the same is anybody’s guess.

Alvin Gibson, owner of a Grove Street dental lab, says it’s imperative.

“I feel like the businesses ... have got to step up and invest like the city has done to make it a better area,” Gibson said.

Gibson chose Midtown as the home of his business 25 years ago, because of its proximity to downtown and the interstate.

And when he expanded recently, he chose to stay, moving about a quarter-mile down the road and renovating an existing building to fit the needs of his lab.

He sees the city investment as an effort at cleaning up Midtown. Midtown seems safer now than before, Gibson said.

He sees pros and cons with the new pedestrian bridge. The property on the other side of downtown from the bridge is a great location for anything, he said. Even if it doesn’t work as an office complex, Gibson said it might make sense as housing for Brenau students.

“I think right now people look at it as it’s not a good idea, but within the next five to 10 years, I think it’s a great idea,” Gibson said. “I think it will definitely join everything up downtown.”

“As Gainesville grows, the people in years to come will really benefit from the bridge a lot more than any individual will today,” Gibson said.

Likewise, Dan Summer sees critics of the city’s investments in Midtown as shortsighted.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people have negative attitudes toward the area, but the reality is that’s the only place Gainesville can really grow without compromising historic neighborhoods and infrastructure, so it’s just a natural place for the city to expand,” Summer said. “In reality, that bridge will lead somewhere.”

Summer and his wife purchased an old railroad-era storage warehouse and renovated it into an event center called Grove Street Station behind the old Hall County Jail. Another part of their property is leased by Kathy Wedegis, owner of The Colored Egg Bakery.

Wedegis opened the bakery in Midtown, hoping the location would help keep her from being incredibly busy as she got her business off the ground. Somehow, she got the right mix of business and says she’s doing “extremely well” as a new Midtown bakery, gaining business slowly through word-of-mouth.

“It’s quiet, but it’s nice,” she said.

Though her business fronts the new Midtown Greenway, Wedegis doesn’t yet see it bringing customers to her shop. But Wedegis said she thinks plans for an amphitheater on an old railyard might give her the exposure she needs.

“I think that will help a lot with letting people know that we’re here,” Wedegis said.

And like her landlord Dan Summer, she hopes private investment eventually comes to the area.

The Summers bought the property that now houses Wedegis’ bakery 10 years ago, because as Midtown was still significantly blighted, they simply got a good deal.

But Summer said he always hoped for more investors to follow suit.

He said Brenau University’s investment in the Georgia Mountains Center, too, might make Midtown more ripe for retail and student housing developments.

“I think it’s probably going to be the hot real estate market in the next 15 to 20 years,” he said.

But in the time they’ve been there, Summer has seen more businesses leave than invest in Midtown.

Most of the improvements in the district have been on the behalf of taxpayers.

Both Gibson and Summer acknowledge that business has to be good for developers to be in the business of beautification.

“It’s hard to upgrade things right now with the economy being in the state that it is,” Gibson said.

Rather than a waste, Gibson sees city investments in the area as a promise for things to come.

“I think it’s an investment in my future,” he said.

Summer is also hopeful that as soon as the economy picks up, “great things” will happen in Midtown.

And that includes the patch of grass just on the other side of the bridge.

“You have to be patient,” Summer said. “A lot of times, things are out of your control, and the economy is just one of those things.”


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