The Blue Ridge shopping center, long in disrepair, still brings back fond memories for longtime Gainesville residents, from its time as a cattle auction site and fairgrounds in the 1950s and 1960s to its transition as a locale for teenagers with a movie theater and a popular pizza joint.
The shopping center off Shallowford Road will soon be redeveloped into a luxury rental community with 161 townhomes and 70 single-family cottages, plus a “village-style” retail center and community amenities. It’s the first new project in an area the city has long earmarked for revitalization.
When Gainesville was smaller, the 25-acre property was a site where farmers and locals would gather at weekly cattle auctions.
The fair would park in town for about a week in the fall with rides like a Ferris wheel, spaces for local craftsmen and artisans to sell their work and competitions for livestock.
“It had all the frills; it had all the games you could play where you could win teddy bears,” Councilman Danny Dunagan said.
The Gainesville Jaycees ran the cattle auction there for years, holding sales about once a week in a barn on the property, first near Shallowford Road and later moved to a facility toward the back of the property.
“We would go to the cattle auctions just to watch and see,” Dunagan said.
Tony Porter, who lived in a house on Shallowford Road growing up, said he always looked forward to the fair.
“Riding some of the rides, playing the games, seeing some of the crazy sideshows, it was just different times back then,” Porter said. “What I remember about the fair too was walking around and all the sawdust. They would bring in truckloads of sawdust to put down on the ground, and that’s what you walked in in the fair area itself.”
Philip Wilheit helped run the cattle auction and the fair in those days as the president of the Jaycees chapter. In the early 1970s, the Jaycees moved their operations to a location in South Hall County where it was cheaper. He sold the land for about $25,000 an acre, which was one of the highest prices per acre in the county at the time, Wilheit said.
“Of course the times have certainly changed since then haven’t they?” he said.
While the fair was still running, Wilheit said he ran the dunk booth.
“I would be the barker for that and run that every night, and of course I got my turn to sit on the dunk and have people throw baseballs at me,” Wilheit said.
By the mid-1970s, Brad Johnson, a developer in the area, built the shopping center with Blue Ridge Cinemas as the main draw, along with Turtle Records, a Kroger grocery store and Godfather’s Pizza.
The cinema was a multi-screen theater, bigger than most other options at the time, Mike Cooper said.
Cooper worked at the theater in the summer of 1978 as a rising high school senior, when some big blockbusters came out including “Jaws 2,” “Animal House” and “Grease.”
“When you worked there, you saw the free movies, and every time the door would open, you heard the soundtrack to ‘Grease,’” he said.
The parking lot outside was a “high school cruising headquarters,” Cooper said.
Teenagers would gather from different high schools and see a movie, eat Chicago-style pizza at Godfather’s or play at a game room in the shopping center.
The teens loitering in the parking lot caused a bit of a ruckus after a while.
In 1982, The Times published an editorial titled “No excuse for conduct at shopping center,” bemoaning the “boisterous, profane, intimidating and inconsiderate” young people. Police Chief George Knapp said he would clean up the shopping center in 1982, prompted by merchants in the center, according to a May, 18, 1982 Times story.
But ask someone who was in high school back then, and you’ll hear that it was a simpler, safer time, and Blue Ridge was a place where young people mostly stayed out of trouble. A few did admit to “hood surfing,” underage drinking and a few fights over the years.
Some even found love.
When Tina Ivey first met her husband, Shon, in 1985 at the Mint 3 game room, she knew him only as his screen name “Leo,” which topped all the leaderboards in the arcade.
“I’m telling you I was in love with ‘Leo’ from the time I was 15 or 16 years old,” Tina said.
She was from Clermont, and he was from Lula, so they went to different schools but would meet at Blue Ridge with other friends. Everyone around them knew they were meant to be, except, of course, Tina and Shon themselves.
“It was so much fun hanging out and everything, and I was so in love with him,” Tina said. “But I didn’t want to ruin it by dating and possibly not being friends.”
They went their separate ways after graduating from high school and both married other people, but they stayed close. Tina even named her first son Shon, spelled the same unusual way after him.
Years passed, and Tina’s first husband died in 2015. Shon was single again too, and in 2019 they finally started dating, 34 years after they first met.
They eloped together in 2020 and are coming up on their two-year anniversary this August, Tina said.
“Life happened, we went on experiencing different things, and it just so happens it brought us back,” Tina said. “We were so young back then, I don’t think we would have worked dating, because we don’t have the experience we do now. Everything happens for a reason, and call it destiny — that’s us.”
But starting in the late 1980s, Blue Ridge lost its appeal.
The Kroger closed in 1986, according to The Times archives, as did Blue Ridge Cinemas around that time. Cruising faded and the area started to go into a sorry state.
In 1997, Rochester and Associates had plans to redevelop it with a hardware store, potentially Home Depot, as its centerpiece, but the plans fell through, according to The Times archives.
For more than 20 years, residents say it has not been a destination, and there is hardly any activity in Blue Ridge today.
Some residents said they were happy to see plans for redevelopment, while others were worried about the traffic it would cause.
“I think it’s a great plan, and a great location for it,” Wilheit said of the new rental community, expected to complete its first phase in 2023.
The project from Two Capital Partners includes nearly $10 million in tax reimbursements from the city. Dunagan and other city officials said they hope it has a halo effect on the area, which includes other sites marked for redevelopment like Lakeshore Mall.
“Lakeshore Mall is going to need something in the very near future, because it doesn’t seem to be doing too well,” Dunagan said.
But no matter what happens to the area, people will still have their memories of Blue Ridge.
“It was the place to be on Friday and Saturday night,” Porter said.