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Engine 209 will remain downtown for now after health system cancels land purchase
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The historic Engine 209, pictured in December 2018, is located in a small park just off Jesse Jewell Parkway in Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers

Engine 209 in Gainesville will stay in its current spot for now, after the Northeast Georgia Health System decided not to purchase the 1.7-acre city-owned property.

The health system had been under contract to purchase the land from the city for $1.2 million as part of an agreement reached when the city took over the health system’s $10 million contract for the land on the southern end of the Jesse Jewell Parkway pedestrian bridge. The Gainesville City Council unanimously voted to approve the $10 million purchase of the 6.8-acre property in October, and the purchase was finalized in November.

The health system terminated the agreement to purchase the land at the intersection of Jesse Jewell Parkway and West Academy Street, home to Engine 209, on April 4 after a due diligence period.

“During the due diligence process, the health system determined that this property did not fit into our short-term and long-term plans,” health system spokesman Sean Couch said in a statement. “We are excited to see what the future holds for this property and downtown.”

Couch said Friday that the health system is looking to expand but has limited space on its current Gainesville campus.

“As a growing health system with a variety of needs and limited room to expand the current campus in Gainesville, we’re always interested in potential property solutions,” Couch said in an email to The Times. “Plus, the proximity of the campus to the property was intriguing.”

The land is currently owned by the Gainesville Redevelopment Authority, which took over from the city in December.

State law allows municipalities to create development authorities that can purchase, lease and sell property, as well as apply for grants and loans to improve properties. While municipalities have to sell land to the highest bidder, development authorities can be more selective in land sales, allowing them to have more control over the future of the land and the surrounding area.

“We don’t just want the person who will pay the most for the property. We want the best quality development, especially for such an important piece of property downtown,” city spokeswoman Nikki Perry told The Times in December.

Now that the health system has decided not to purchase the property, the development authority will retain ownership, and the property can be incorporated into the city’s future downtown planning.

“Downtown Gainesville is undergoing significant changes, with new building construction, streets, sidewalks, parking, and utilities,” Rusty Ligon, the city’s community and economic development director, said in a statement. “Since no immediate development is planned, we have the opportunity to take a step back and see how this corner fits into the changing landscape of downtown.”

The city is currently working on some downtown street improvements, which will include new sidewalks along Main Street and Maple Street. Work is scheduled to be done in June.

Other changes downtown include Carroll Daniel Construction’s new headquarters at the corner of Jesse Jewell Parkway and Main Street, which will have space for offices, restaurants and retail on the first floor. That project is due to be finished in August.

Also, Parkside on the Square, a multi-use building on the downtown square with 32 condominiums on upper floors and retail and restaurants on the first floor, is set to break ground later this year.

Developer Tim Knight of Knight Commercial Real Estate, the developer for Parkside on the Square, had planned to build a mixed-use development on the Engine 209 site. However, Knight was released from that option in February, leaving the health system with the decision of whether to buy the land. According to an agreement approved by the Gainesville City Council in February, the city will now pay Knight $100,000 for his investments in the land so far, which include architecture and design work. The health system would have had to pay Knight that amount if it decided to purchase the property.

With Engine 209 sitting in downtown, officials are considering moving the train to another location in downtown or midtown. However, it will stay accessible to the public and could also get more child-friendly features.

“While the city encourages new development and redevelopment in downtown and midtown, preserving the historic character of our community is an important part of the planning process,” City Manager Bryan Lackey said in a statement. “Whatever happens at this location, the public can rest assured that this historic train will be well taken care of and will remain available to the public.”

Lackey declined to offer additional comment Friday.