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A ‘cool downtown’ could be in Flowery Branch's future
Duluth city manager has unique take on South Hall town's growth
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Downtown Flowery Branch is in the midst of a housing renaissance of sorts as new home construction is happening at several lots. The new City Hall is also under construction nearby as well as road construction. - photo by Scott Rogers

With a “little push,” Flowery Branch could have “the cool downtown” in South Hall, Duluth City Manager James Riker told Flowery Branch City Council and other government officials Saturday, Feb. 17.

“Flowery Branch has the pieces here, and you’ve been good and strategic about collecting those pieces,” he said. “It’s just about how to position them and take the time to complement what you’re already doing.”

Riker is no stranger to the city’s growth and development. He was Flowery Branch’s planning director for about eight years before accepting a similar role in Duluth in January 2013. He then went on to become city manager.

In Duluth, he became fully engaged in the Gwinnett County city’s redevelopment, particularly changes in the downtown area. He talked about the transformation during a presentation at a Flowery Branch government retreat at the Historic Depot downtown.

“The city wasn’t looking to make a money in (the effort),” Riker said. “They were looking to create a community.”

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Duluth City Manager James Riker spoke Saturday, Feb. 17, to Flowery Branch officials during a retreat in the South Hall city. Riker is a former Flowery Branch city planner. - photo by Jeff Gill
The “tipping point was there were communities around us that had a bigger glow than we did,” he said, citing civic improvements in such cities as Sugar Hill and Suwanee.

“Frankly, the citizens of Duluth were like, ‘We’re not going to stand by and let other things pass us by.’”

These days, “there a new sense of pride,” Riker said.

Even though the Duluth area is much bigger — the city has 30,000 people to Flowery Branch’s 7,000 — “the model is scalable, up or down,” Riker said. “I think you can accomplish these things with smaller budgets.”

Reviving Flowery Branch’s downtown, often referred to by locals as “Old Town,” has been taking place in steps over several years, including during Riker’s tenure as city planner.

The city spruced up the look of Main Street and Railroad Avenue with “streetscaping projects,” putting in brick sidewalks and decorative street lights. In 2016, the town opened a new roundabout on Lights Ferry Road and Mitchell Street, connecting Lights Ferry to Atlanta Highway/Ga. 13 and adding new streetlights.

And Flowery Branch hopes to open a new city hall early this year off Church Street and Railroad Avenue, a project that includes extending Pine Street from Church to Railroad.

Officials have said they hope the project will continue to trigger growth that’s been happening downtown. Plans are underway for a new building housing a pizzeria and craft beer shop off Main and Mitchell.

Riker praised Flowery Branch’s new city hall, which, he said, fits the area’s look.

“Once it gets constructed, it’ll feel like it’s always been there,” he said. “You can do a real nice blend of new and old. And the key to that is ... you cannot put a price on authenticity. If you build new, new gets dated when the next new thing comes along.

“But if you have a historical component, you always stay relevant. So, the fact you have this building stock on your Main Street and some of the quirkiness in your downtown will be a value to you.”

He said he did have “one word of caution” for city officials. 

“The longer you wait to address things like stormwater appropriately for your community, you are doing no one a service,” Riker said. “The bill is coming due. The question is do you want to have the money to fix it when it does come due?”

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