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Flowery Branch's Old Town now 'dead and gone'
Commercial/residential project in foreclosure, a victim of Great Recession

Rolled out in the spring of 2008, the $15 million Old Town Flowery Branch development promised to recast the South Hall city's downtown area as a commercial and residential destination.

Today, the vacant 2.5-plus acres with a fading sign featuring artist drawings stands as further testimony to the Great Recession's impact and a recovery that never gained traction.

"It's dead and gone," said Marty Hortman, whose Buford-based company pushed the project. "... I and the project are a victim of what's going on in this five-year recession, with no end in sight."

The property went into foreclosure and is now owned by United Community Bank, said Dick Valentine, the bank's Hall County CEO.

Original plans called for 21 condominiums, 14 lofts, seven townhomes, two restaurants with outdoor seating, a pub and a grocery store. Also on the drawing boards were a five-story parking deck, a half-acre public park and several retail stores and office spaces.

The project also called for the extension of Pine Street across the property to connect with Railroad Avenue, with buildings on either side - similar to the setup on Main Street, which would have run parallel to the new Pine.

"This will be a first-class project," said Kellin Dobbs, the project's spokesman, in May 2008. "And we plan to use this as something that will have a halo effect to spur redevelopment in the area."

The Flowery Branch Historic Preservation Commission later gave its blessing to the project.

The project gained steam, later picking up funding through the city's tax allocation district to help with the costs of tearing down an old building that had become an eyesore.

Under state law, local governments can create the tax districts as a tool to lure developers to blighted areas, using property taxes from developments to pay for certain public-use projects within the district.

Development, in general, began to pick up in the city.

Stonebridge Village, a regional shopping center, was built off Spout Springs and Hog Mountain roads. And the city's only hotel, Hampton Inn & Suites, was built on Holland Dam Road.

Then, the economy hit the brakes — hard.

"It started with crazy Americans electing a communist into the White House in 2008," Hortman said in an interview last week. "... Financing is still impossible. Home sales are virtually at a standstill."

Ultimately, "I couldn't keep funding the project and I let it all go back to the bank."

United Community doesn't want to hang on to the property — the centerpiece of which is a 2-acre tract appraised at $150,163, according to Hall County records.

"We'll actively try to sell the property," Valentine said.

Flowery Branch "has got some good growth going and, as things pick back up, it may be an opportunity for somebody," he added.

City Manager Bill Andrew said he believes the tax allocation district remains a "tool we can use in that area, particularly to build Pine Street and do the streetscape."

The city, through state Transportation Enhancement grants, has improved Main Street and is improving Railroad Avenue through new sidewalks and streetlights.

The site itself is ready for multiuse development, having gotten the city's OK several years ago.

"If you had the money to go build it, you'd just present us with the finished, engineered drawings and we'd approve the drawings of the actual construction of the buildings," Andrew said. "That is a value we've added to the property, we feel.

"Based on today's economy and a different market, obviously that (project) design would have to be modified," he added.

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