A whistle over midtown is calling: It’s time again for work at the Georgia Chair factory after a long, long weekend.
Life is coming back to 456 Industrial Blvd., two years after Gainesville bid farewell to Georgia Chair and its century of craftsmanship. In its place, an event center based on Gainesville’s rail and industrial history aims to serve as the anchor for big plans in midtown.
Making it possible is Bob Cheeley, an Alpharetta lawyer with a passion for historic preservation. He purchased the factory and surrounding property after Georgia Chair closed in 2016. Cheeley got involved in the parcel with Lee Arnold, a Dahlonega woodworker who was looking to relocate his high-end cabinet and window business closer to home from Dallas.
“(Lee) was bidding on some of the equipment that Georgia Chair was auctioning off,” Cheeley told The Times on Tuesday, June 5. “He called me and said, ‘Hey Bob, want to buy a warehouse?’”
Turns out, after a tour and a bit more information, Bob did, and since then the old Georgia Chair whistle has been ripping through the air like it did in years past.
“I just saw the property really had great historical value and charm. It’s an old, industrial village, and it really needed to be preserved and given a (new) use,” Cheeley said. “I envisioned then that it would be a great place to have a distillery or a brewery, a place for social gatherings and a restaurant. That’s what we set our sights on accomplishing.”
Arnold and Cheeley initially invested in the property together, but the woodworker sold his share to Cheeley, who now owns the 13 acres between Davis Street and Industrial Boulevard just about outright. Arnold and his company, Architectural Details and Millwork, are now the anchor tenant in the property.
“It’s a great facility — it’s got good bones,” Arnold told The Times on Thursday, talking over the noise and hustle of his busy shop. “It’s been around for over 100 years, and I think it’ll be around for a lot longer.”
Since the end of 2016, Arnold has run his millwork business from the property, making high-end, custom cabinets, windows and other fixtures with 18 employees, a headcount he hopes to grow in the future as his business expands.
Arnold is not the only presence expanding in the plant. Across the worn dirt path between the old brick buildings sits another wing of the factory village, a wing with subtle improvements — fresh doors, a metal roof, an improved parking lot — that belie deep changes within.
Behind the old Georgia Chair office, Douglas Nassaur and his fiance, Jennifer Wheatley, have opened the Gainesville Distilling Co. Eventually, they hope to distill whiskey, gin, vodka, brandy and bourbon.
The Gainesville Distilling Co. would be Hall County’s first distillery and, with Left Nut Brewing Co. and Sweet Acre Farms Winery, would complete the set for the community as the state loosens its binds on the alcohol industry.
Gainesville Distilling has its branding down pat. A slick website sets the tone for the organization, which will promote local industrial history.
“These buildings are 1920, 1930,” Nassaur told The Times in his office on May 30. “Two things are very important to us: period authentic and historically accurate. Having this property right on the old wye, where the trains would come onto this spur from the main line, deliver or pick up in town and then back out this way and head in out of town (is an asset).”
An emphasis on history is evident in the company’s event center and the Speakeasy Bar, which have hosted two major events with temporary certificates of occupancy — including the primary watch party for Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in his run for governor.
The baked brick walls, careworn floorboards and vaulted, dark ceilings offer the industrial atmosphere sought by Georgia’s blossoming brewery and budding distillery industries.
“In 1920 to 1933, people dressed for dinner, they talked to each other, they traveled by train — they drank brandy, but that’s another story — but they literally sat in the parlor and they talked to each other,” Nassaur said, an atmosphere the Gainesville Distilling Co. wants to evoke with its bar, event spaces and, later on, the distillery itself.
There are some hurdles still to clear for the company, among the biggest that the city of Gainesville currently doesn’t allow distilleries within its boundaries. Gainesville City Manager Bryan Lackey said the government is evaluating its alcohol regulations, and that a vote could come in July to update those regulations. But at the moment, it doesn’t have room in the code for a distillery.
“The issue we had here is, this property in the beginning had a lot of hopes, dreams and operations,” Nassaur said. “During that time, there were some starts and stops. Because there were a bunch of different contractors and different people involved, how we approached the city, we didn’t follow step 1, step 2, step 3.”
He said the city has been helpful to the new operators and that both sides are on the same page with the property.
When the details are sorted out, those involved with the midtown project are primed with a grand vision for what has been for the past few years an area left behind by development in Hall County.
Interest in the lot comes at an opportune time for midtown. With the expansion of the Midtown Greenway, the area will connect to downtown Gainesville and provide easy walking access between the new Parkside on the Square condominiums and the revivified industrial village.
“We’re hoping, and this is the big message from us, every other business in town we want to benefit from our investment,” Nassaur said. “We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.”
The people behind the development imagine a parcel with an outdoor amphitheater, trains on display (including the Gainesville Midland engine currently looking for a new home) and a Ponce City Market-style dining hall — all based around a distillery that has its roots in Georgia Chair.
“It’s really exceeded even my expectations of how beautiful the wood is — the old tar pine beams and rafters and the beautiful, old, worn wooden floors,” Cheeley said. “We’ve taken 100-old-buildings ... and it’s going to be a combination of the old and the new.”