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Remodeling history: Flowery Branch restoring downtown buildings
City hopes project will spur redevelopment of historic area
The building permit is on display in the window of one of two buildings Flowery Branch is remodeling next to City Hall. The project is the latest in an effort to revitalize the historic downtown area. - photo by SARA GUEVARA
FLOWERY BRANCH - Flowery Branch is taking steps to revive at least one part of downtown by fixing up a pair of century-old Main Street buildings.

At one time a tenant in one of the buildings, the city has spent more than $11,000 remodeling them the past few months, after buying them two years ago.

"They had been benignly neglected for a while, and we felt that the city owning them would not only add some value to the block - we would basically own the whole block," said Bill Andrew, city manager.

"We would have controlling interest and be able to offer it as a redevelopment, either for ourselves or another developer."

Buying the property, as well as city offices across the street, "is just an investment to try to gain some control over our future with what we own and what we feel the city needs for us to move forward," Andrew said.

While the city is looking at leasing the property now, one future option would be to sell off the downtown properties and use the proceeds toward building a new city hall.

In the meantime, new tenants could help bring more business to shops now on Main Street.

The whole effort, however things play out, could work in tandem with a private developer's plans for Old Town Flowery Branch, a $15 million project expected to have shops, cafes, townhomes and a parking garage.

Work on that project's first phase is set to begin this year.

"Although we have limited resources, we are able to put some (money) into fixing up those buildings," Andrew said. "When we got them, they were in need of structural repair. "

Donald Bowers, Flowery Branch's building inspector, said that renovations have consisted of installing wooden beams across the length of the buildings to better support their roofs, pouring new footings and bringing the electricity up to code.

Andrew said, "This is what they call getting it to a ‘white box' state, which means a tenant can come in and we'd work with them to do a finish as to whatever their needs are."

Both buildings' roofs were sagging - one of them by about 8 inches - and had rotted through in some spots, Bowers said while giving a tour of the buildings last week.

One of the buildings has a crawlspace "that was full of old boots from (a former) boot factory," he said.

Workers also found "some really old bottles" dating from the 1930s and 1940s.

"It was just a junk yard down there," Bowers said.

At one time, though, the two buildings housed thriving businesses.

Johnny Thomas, the city's public works director, grew up in the area and has worked off and on since 1989.

He recalled two grocery stores in the locations back in the 1960s, with one of them featuring a delicatessen.

"Both of them had pretty good business going back then," Thomas said.

At one time, downtown Flowery Branch was flourishing with merchants and shoppers - a different picture than today, with the town's retail growth occurring in shopping centers on the edge of town near Interstate 985.

Thomas recalled three grocery stores, music shops and a furniture store. And the town's post office, now located on Atlanta Highway just outside downtown, was in the spot now occupied by the city's police department.

"And there was a working red light right there on Main Street and Church Street," he said.

Downtown business began to go downhill in the late 1970s.

"The mom and pops were getting old and just going out," Thomas said.

Most recently, the building closest to City Hall was a karate studio "that had a (roof) leak for quite a while," Andrew said.

"We actually spent a fair amount of money (on those repairs) and we (fixed up) her bathroom and things like that, trying to keep it up a bit," he said.

The properties already have garnered some interest, which bodes well for the city especially as "we get to the point where (the buildings) are a little more presentable," Andrew said.

"The city is not in this to make money. The city is in it to try to recover some of our costs, but our other concern, obviously, is to revitalize downtown," he added.

Other cities, such as Suwanee and Braselton, have owned buildings as real estate investments, so such a government enterprise isn't unusual, Andrew said.

"It happens from time to time, but it's not a state we'd want to be in for a long period," he said.

The city hasn't decided yet whether to market the property itself or through a Realtor, Andrew said.

"We have one potential tenant who's interested in talking with us, so we want to finish up those conversations and see where it goes," he added.

"Beyond that, it's just move forward in getting someone in there as soon as possible."