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Downtown revitalizing is all the rage for city centers
Towns seek to boost area businesses while preserving history
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Flowery Branch city planner John McHenry, left, and Mayor Mike Miller talk downtown Thursday. McHenry holds a POND Flowery Branch Old Town Redevelopment Guide. - photo by NAT GURLEY

City Councilwoman Mary Jones remembers a totally different downtown Flowery Branch not so long ago.

“There were no streetlights, no sidewalks, no trees, no flowers, no nothing,” said Jones, who has served in two separate stints, the first starting in 2006.

After several years of completing beautification projects and otherwise working to lure businesses downtown, Flowery Branch isn’t done yet, releasing a redevelopment plan for the city’s center, known as “Old Town,” in January.

The downtown revitalization fever seems to have spread to other Hall cities, such as Lula and Gillsville, which are likewise balancing renewal with historic preservation.

And the state is picking up the vibe, as well, rolling out such programs as the Georgia Downtown Renaissance Fund, recently signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal. The law enables the Georgia Department of Community Affairs to help cities with low-interest loans, planning and other help.

When it comes to finding funding, “we’re turning over every rock,” said John McHenry, Flowery Branch’s city planner.

In past years, one steady source for cities wanting to spruce up downtowns was Georgia’s Transportation Enhancement Activities program, which funneled federal money to improvement efforts along roadways.

The program, redone when the government reauthorized its transportation spending bill in 2012, helped Flowery Branch with a couple of projects downtown, featuring brick-paver sidewalks, quaint streetlights and landscaping.

Lula has completed one project using Transportation Enhancement money. The northeastern Hall city and Gillsville, which sits mostly in Hall and partly in Banks County, have plans to use leftover money from that program for improvements in their respective downtowns.

Both downtowns are on busy state routes — Ga. 52 in Gillsville and Ga. 51 in Lula.

“What we’re doing is turning (downtown) into somewhat of a plaza,” said Gillsville Mayor Larry Poole during a visit to the town last week.

“The main purpose of it to give you a better flow through the area, plus it’s going to look better. It’s going to be a nice, attractive front from the road. I think it will be very positive for the city.”

Poole said the city also hopes to convert a city-owned downtown building — one of the city’s oldest, dating to 1900 or before — into a library, city hall and a “heritage building to display memorabilia, articles and things from the town that people have collected over the years.”

Lula, Gillsville’s neighbor to the north, also is working on plans beautify Main Street, which cuts through the city center and runs parallel to its busy railroad line.

Some work has been done already, including Veterans Park, which features a decorative water fountain.

“All we can do is encourage local businesses to locate here, make it a good environment for them, very cost-efficient for them, then get out of their way, pat them on the back and wish them well,” City Manager Dennis Bergin said during a meeting last week with residents to talk about future development in and around downtown.

One of speakers at the meeting, Mark Lusink of the Lula Downtown Development Authority, wasn’t just talking about how redevelopment should occur.

He recently renovated an old building, originally a dry goods store, that had been abandoned for more than 30 years. Matt Christopher and Aaron Lee, owners of the custom apparel and promotions shop 2Graphic, are renting space there.

“The redevelopment of downtown has always been my push,” said Lula Councilwoman Vicky Chambers, the council’s liaison to the Downtown Development Authority.

“I want to see more businesses in town and people supporting those businesses,” said Chambers, who runs Around The Corner Florist & Garden Shop off Athens Street and Main. “We have a challenge here because we don’t have any places really for people to work. The tendency is wherever you go to work is where you buy.

“My goal is to have more people aware of the businesses, beautify the area, clean it up and preserve its history.”

Flowery Branch has strived to do the same, keep its history intact, but while pushing development of a new section of downtown, one that involves a vacant, grassy tract between Main and West Chestnut streets. The new area also would involve extending Pine Street from Church Street to Railroad Avenue.

Plans call for building a new city hall in the area, along with shops and restaurants.

“This is a beautiful spot and ... in some respects, that’s because there wasn’t a whole lot of development pressure here in the past,” McHenry said. “But now we can preserve it and sort of take it to the next level.”

Gainesville, which years ago completed a project involving new sidewalks and landscaping, also is moving toward some downtown improvements. The city is waiting on a grant to begin a downtown master plan, city spokeswoman Catiel Felts said.

And the city is seeking proposals, due May 22, for potential mixed-use development on city-owned parking lots between Main Street, Broad Street and Jesse Jewell Parkway.

Last year, Elizabeth Lawandales, a landscape architecture student at the University of Georgia, worked with Gainesville officials on downtown revitalization ideas, including narrowing Bradford and Washington streets so wider sidewalks can be extended and trees could be planted.

For area residents and merchants, the redevelopment and renewed interest in downtown is refreshing.

“I would like to more locally owned niche restaurants,” said Matt McCullough, walking his dog, Blake, down Main Street in Flowery Branch Thursday morning. “Of course, I wouldn’t want anyone to step on the toes of (existing businesses) — those are pretty unique places in their own right.”

Melissa Grizzle, who owns Maw Maw & Paw Paw’s Cafe in Gillsville, with husband Ray, said she likes the town’s plans and would like to see some growth happen downtown.

“It needs more shops ... more things going on around here,” she said. “More festivals, things like that.”

Wendell Dyer, who has lived in Lula 12 years, said the downtown could use more shops and dressing up — such as fresh paint on the town’s parked caboose — but otherwise, “this is just a plain, hometown kind of place, and I think people kind of like it that way.”

Roy Gowder, who’s kept a shop in downtown Lula for 40-plus years, selling auto supplies, had a similar opinion.

“I’d like to see it, but it ain’t going happen over here,” said the 89-year-old businessman. “It’s going to happen on Ga. 365.”

The four-lane, busy Ga. 365 cuts through North Hall, running on Lula’s outskirts en route to the North Georgia mountains.

“I think Roy and I kind of like it the way it is,” said Dyer, a customer in Gowder’s business.

“This is a railroad town and will always be a railroad town,” Gowder said.