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The displays at the Lula Train Depot depicted a reinvigorated downtown, with storefronts getting a makeover and a “streetscaping” effort sprucing up Main Street.
Officials said Tuesday night they believe the efforts are just the start of renewal for the city, tucked away in northeast Hall County, a couple of miles away from Ga. 365 at the Banks County line.
“The city, in my opinion, is on the move,” said Mark Lusink of the Lula Downtown Development Authority. “I’ve lived here for eight years now and in the past couple of years, I’ve really seen a change.”
In a session dubbed as “Building a Better Lula: Past, Present and Future,” Lusink and other officials spent an hour talking with — and hearing from — local residents about opportunities for the city, known also for straddling a busy railroad line.
“We’ve definitely got to have community involvement,” Mayor Milton Turner said to the gathering of about 40 residents. “Everybody’s got to marry into these projects.”
He talked about one of the city’s biggest improvement projects ever — a $12 million sewer plant that opened about three years ago.
“We have built for the growth,” Turner said. “We are prepared for the growth, not just downtown but the surrounding communities.”
Just last week, government officials, business leaders and developers gathered to discuss progress along the Ga. 365 corridor in northeast Hall. Several developments, particularly the 518-acre Gateway Industrial Centre, which is expected to produce hundreds of jobs, are planned or taking shape.
In downtown Lula, officials are working on a project to improve downtown with landscaping and other attractive features.
“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.
Lusink himself is helping to pump new life into downtown.
He bought an old building that was abandoned for more than 30 years, renovated the structure and now has a tenant.
Built in 1884, the building was originally a dry goods store on the first floor and an apartment upstairs where the store owner lived. It has suffered years’ worth of water and structural damage since it was last occupied sometime in the 1970s.
The ground level was completed and opened for business last month, with the second story due to follow soon. Both levels were rented by Matt Christopher and Aaron Lee, owners of the custom apparel and promotions shop 2Graphic.
While residents at the meeting appreciated the zest for growth and community activities, there are gaps to fill, particularly nearby retail and grocery stores.
“All our money is going out (of the city),” said June Vincent, who has lived in Lula for 10 years. “We all have to go somewhere else to shop. We’re almost like a bedroom community.”
“You are (a) bedroom community,” Bergin said.
He went on to say major chains, such as grocers, are looking for high traffic and a lot of surrounding homes before they build. Lula has the traffic, with the four-lane Ga. 365, but not the homes.
“Without those rooftops, they’re not going to come into the area,” Bergin said. “With the improving economy, the good news is we’re going to get some looks. The bad news is until you start building (homes), they’re not going to locate here.”
Scotty Poole, pastor of Lula Assembly of Praise, said he believes any efforts going forward must involve the city’s residents.
“To me, it’s about the people ... and the question is are we going to be ready (for growth)?” he said. “Are we going to prepare ourselves as a community and make ourselves the kind of place people want to go to?”