Gazing from the top level of the downtown parking deck, developer Tim Knight had a clear view of the Gainesville square and his ambitious plans for it.
Right down to fine selling points, such as the nine-minute walk to Northeast Georgia Medical Center off Spring Street.
“I’ve timed it,” Knight said.
The Cartersville native and University of Georgia graduate cut his real estate teeth on metro Atlanta apartment development in the 1980s and later huge retail with Ben Carter Properties, which built the Mall of Georgia in Buford.
In recent years, he has emerged as a development force in Gainesville.
“Tim’s a straight-shooter and a visionary, and we’re happy to have him on board, I can assure you of that,” Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan said.
Knight’s Duluth-based company, Knight Commercial Real Estate, formed in 2006 and has developed the 225,000-square-foot North Lake Square shopping center on Dawsonville Highway/Ga. 53.
And earlier this month, Gainesville officials announced that Knight’s company and Carroll Daniel Construction were chosen to develop three mixed-use projects with a combined investment of $53 million on city-owned downtown property.
Land deals weren’t on Knight’s mind when he and his wife, Bev, moved from Gwinnett County to West Hall in 2005, after their sons went off to college. They just wanted to live on Lake Lanier.
But that changed after Knight spent some time driving around the community, going to the grocery store, cleaners, church and other places.
It just hit him one day: “This is a good little market,” the 58-year-old Knight said during an interview and visit to the downtown site last week. “And it’s one of the few markets that’s underserved in retail.”
“So, I started focusing some brokerage efforts up here,” including Olive Garden on Dawsonville Highway, Knight said.
“I had to show (Olive Garden) that all the income here is not readily apparent because you can’t see all these lake houses from the road,” he said.
To prove his point, he took the Olive Garden representative on a Lake Lanier boat trip.
“He got it,” Knight said.
From a personal standpoint, “I started learning this was a really fantastic market. You just have to educate people on how it works — how the transportation works and where the people live, basically.”
Olive Garden opened in 2011. Soon to follow as neighbors were Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen and Buffalo Wild Wings.
“Some of these people already had Gainesville on their radar,” Knight said. “They knew they wanted to be here, but they didn’t really understand the market. When you bring them up here and show them all that’s going on, then they get it.”
As the economy continued to improve, he turned his attention to open land across from the restaurants on Dawsonville Highway.
“At the time, I had Academy (Sports + Outdoors) interested in the site,” Knight said.
But then he contacted a shopping center developer he knew and partnered up for a deal that would bring retail to the site.
Other than Academy Sports, they had lined up Hobby Lobby and Chipotle.
But soon, “it just took off,” Knight said.
Since its 2015 opening, the shopping center has mostly filled up, with Five Guys Burgers and Fries the latest tenant to locate there. It shares a building with Domino’s Pizza, Venice Nail Salon and Chicken Salad Chick, a restaurant set to open June 6, Knight said.
The shopping center has one 1,400-square-foot vacancy left. Also, it has a vacant outparcel that could develop someday as a sit-down restaurant.
Basically, “we’ve done all we can do out there,” Knight said. “It’s been amazing.”
He began considering the downtown project through his involvement with the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s Vision 2030 efforts. Midtown and downtown revitalization has long been a community goal.
“We develop all around metro Atlanta and see these (mixed-use) projects all the time in Buckhead, Virginia Highlands,” Knight said. “Looking at it, I really thought it could work here.”
Knight’s projects include a $16 million, 15,000-square-foot building on the fourth side of the square, featuring street-level retail and restaurants with 40 luxury condos on floors above; and a $25 million, 30,000-square-foot retail-residential building off Jesse Jewell Parkway and Maple Street.
Carroll Daniel Construction is planning a $12 million, 60,000-square-foot mixed use development off Jesse Jewell and Main Street.
Knight’s projects are slated to begin next year. Carroll Daniel’s project could start later this year.
Knight believes the projects have plenty of selling points, including a vibrant downtown and closeness to Brenau University, courthouses and the hospital.
“The daytime population and the jobs are there to make this successful,” he said.
The development, Knight believes, should be especially appealing to millennials.
“They want to park their car and walk. They want the urban living experience,” he said.
“That’s what you’re seeing all over Atlanta. We think that market’s here.”
Knight’s plans have drawn raves from city officials and others.
“We’re real excited about the initial response we’ve gotten since the announcement,” Knight said. “It’s exceeded our expectations.”
He said he wants to lure retail that complements what’s already on the square.
“I want to bring in new types of retail, and I really want to focus on local and regional concepts, if possible,” Knight said. “I think that’s a better feel.”
One thing is for certain: The downtown project has his full attention.
“We’re putting all our time, energy and effort into making this work,” Knight said.