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What Gainesville might do with historic Engine 209 train, land
Realty company, health system at top of potential buyers list
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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

The city of Gainesville hopes to sell the land at the intersection of Jesse Jewell Parkway and West Academy Street, the site of Engine 209 Park, and relocate the historic train, with the goal of redeveloping the land and spurring additional downtown growth.

The Gainesville Redevelopment Authority voted to take over the 1.7-acre city-owned property at its meeting Thursday. The Gainesville City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to hand the land over to the redevelopment authority.

State law allows municipalities to create development authorities that purchase, lease and dispose of property and can accept and apply for grants and loans to improve properties. Gainesville created its authority in 1999.

Municipalities themselves are required to take the highest bidder when selling land, but development authorities have more flexibility with land sales.

“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 said.

The authority is offering the Engine 209 site to the Northeast Georgia Health System for $1.2 million as part of an agreement reached when the city took over the health system’s contract for the land at 110 Jesse Jewell Parkway, on the midtown end of Gainesville’s pedestrian bridge.

The midtown end of the pedestrian bridge across Jesse Jewell Parkway from downtown Gainesville. - photo by Mario Sanchez

Cara Mitchell, the secretary for the authority, said Thursday she would recuse herself from the matter because her law firm, Whelchel, Dunlap, Jarrard & Walker, represents the health system.

The health system may not ultimately occupy the Engine 209 site after all, though — Knight Commercial Realty has the first option for the land. Developer Tim Knight told The Times earlier in December that three mixed-use plans were being considered. When plans were announced in 2017, the project was said to include 30,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space with 150 apartments above.

Sean Couch, a spokesman for the health system, said the health system would use its 90-day due diligence period to evaluate the site and see if it would work for a new facility or offices. If the health system decides not to purchase the land, the redevelopment authority would retain ownership.

Negotiations will now be between the health system and Knight Commercial Realty, City Manager Bryan Lackey said after Thursday’s redevelopment authority meeting.

“(Knight) is still in what I’d call first position on that. The hospital has to negotiate with them to alter that agreement to allow them to enter first position,” Lackey said.

Engine 209 would be relocated to other city-owned property, possibly to be incorporated into a larger park. The city had already been considering moving the train to make it more accessible, city officials said Thursday.

“That train really needs to be in a place that is convenient and can be better utilized by the public, and also a cover put over it so we don’t have to paint it every two or three years,” Mayor Danny Dunagan said. “Also, it can be used with maybe a park around it so it would be a nice amenity.”

Abb Hayes, Gainesville’s city attorney, said the city often seeks to sell excess property so it can become tax-producing and contribute to economic development.

If the health system builds on the property, any health system building would be required to have at least two stories, according to the contract. If anyone other than the health system builds there, that developer would be required to construct a multi-use building with at least three stories. Before any construction on the site could start, plans would have to be approved by Gainesville’s city manager.

The contract with the health system would require NGHS to grant the city an easement to build an electronic sign to promote community events. Also, 40 parking spaces would need to be set aside 12 times a year for events at the Smithgall Arts Center.