Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan The city of Suwanee and its Downtown Development Authority is pursuing a National Historic Register district. The district would help property owners obtain tax credits and grants for renovations.
SUWANEE -- When Joy Smith and her son Cody opened Revival Salon about four years ago, they looked for a space with character, and something besides the cookie-cutter, strip-shopping center feel.
On Main Street in Old Town, Joy Smith said they opened the salon to make an investment in an area that has remained largely stagnant for decades.
"We feel like we rolled the dice on Main Street, Suwanee," Smith said. "Something that can't be replicated is the history."
If the city of Suwanee and its Downtown Development Authority have their way, the Smith's propriety soon won't be a rare sight in Old Town. An issue that's been discussed by the city council for more than a decade was revived late last year with the sale of Pierce's Corner, a 6,000-square-foot, two-story building that was built in 1910. It has served as a general store, grocery store, cotton gin, dentist office and silent movie theater.
Now the DDA is pursuing national register district status in hopes that property owners can gain tax credits for renovations.
Besides Revival, a destination hair salon, other businesses in Old Town include a law firm, insurance agency, accounting office, antique store, bike shop, wood cabinet shop, and pottery painting house.
The Deming Group, LLC agreed to a 50-year, lease-to-purchase transaction in December with the DDA for $258,640, financed at a 3.5 percent interest rate, which came about eight years after it was purchased by the city for about $400,000, said Marty Allen, the Suwanee city manager. Deming has the right to purchase the building within the first 22 years of the agreement.
This is one of the first projects for Michael Deming, Jr. who is starting a business called Southern Eco Construction Solutions, which hopes to act as a "business incubator" on the second floor of the building. The first floor would be a casual dining restaurant, Demig said.
The business model for Southern Eco Construction is to remodel buildings to be more energy efficient or certified in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.
The sale price was in the middle of the city's appraisal, and the Deming Group's appraisal, which was higher, Allen and De said.
Since 2003, Allen said the city has been concerned and protective about the ownership and future of Pierce's Corner. That was one of the reasons behind the 2003 purchase, and a main reason why the Deming Group was chosen out of a group of 11 proposals.
The reason the transaction was a lease-to-purchase was because it allows the buyer to invest more money into renovation of the property instead of at the outset of the purchase, Allen said.
Tax credits for Pierce's Corner have an estimated value of $300,000, DDA officials said.
Deming Jr. said the tax credits are critical to the project, but stopped short of saying the project would fall through if tax credits were not acquired.
"It would make it difficult to complete the project," Deming said. "We've budgeted for this. Our plan for the building is to make it as high a LEED certification as feasible."
The tax credits would be used to strengthen the building's support and firm up bricks and mortar.
To help navigate the historic register process, the city has agreed to pay consultant Ken Kocher about $5,000. Kocher is the principal of Piedmont Preservation, a historic preservation consulting firm in Madison.
The Deming Group also has a consultant, Kirby Glaze, the president and founder of Community Development Partners. Based in Atlanta, Glaze currently works on projects in Richmond Hill, Athens, Griffin, Thomasville and Moultrie.An anchor to the areaThe historic status is directly tied to Pierce's Corner being an anchor to the area, and the beginning of a domino effect of revitilization.
Alison Starnes, the city's downtown business development manager, said businesses might then want to renovate their building, or even alter their business concept, to spur a rebirth.
"We want to see Old Town successful and vibrant," Starnes said. "We want to see specifically the renovation of Pierce's Corner a successful renovation, so we can see a halo effect from it. ... Other people will drive through and want to rent that office space. Eat there, shop there, be there. A little renaissance."
Added Mayor Jimmy Burnette, "It's sort of a catalyst to help promote the area."
The DDA chose to pursue a national historic district as opposed to a local district. According to documents from the state's Department of Natural Resources, the differences include federal and state tax credits and grants available for a national district, which aren't available for a local district. A local district also sets district boundaries based on the distribution pattern of historic resources.
The unofficial geographic boundaries that have been discussed are White Street to Russell Street, Main Street and Stonecypher Road. Among the historic buildings that would cover are Pierce's Corner, Everett Music Barn, Mayor Burnette's house, which was built in the 1870s, the building that houses Revival Salon and buildings owned by Suwanee native John Titshaw.
With that framework, the state's DNR will evaluate the interiors and exteriors of the buildings and architectual themes throughout.
The overriding theme of this pursuit is to provide tax credits and grants for business owners.
"It's important to preserve our historic buildings in Suwanee," Starnes said. "We don't have many of them anymore. At least show some form of goodwill toward keeping those buildings in Suwanee. But we don't want to restrict the property owners in any way."Tax credits and grants as incentivesGretchen Brock works as a National Register and Survey Program manager for the DNR. Brock said in an email message that tax credits and grants are one incentive for owners who carry out a substantial rehabilitation. They aren't automatic, Brock said, and federal incentives are only for income-producing properties.
State tax incentives are for personal residences and income-producing properties.
The economic downturn has reduced the amount of funds available for grants in general, Brock said. Because of ongoing state budget constriction, grants available through the Georgia Heritage program have not been available during the current fiscal year.
The state "preferential property tax assessment" freezes the county property tax assessment for more than eight years, but the owner must increase the fair market value of the building by 50 percent to 100 percent.
Early last week, Brock said her office hadn't received a proposed nomination from Suwanee. But the review process typically takes about 30 to 60 days. The timeline for a National Register nomination to be official is about 18 to 24 months, Brock said.'Let individuals ... do the work on their own'Linda Fleming grew up in Suwanee, and her family owns a house on Main Street. Fleming said there are no major advantages to an individual property owner to live in a National Historic Register other than to say they live there.
"Personally, I think the most benign thing for the city of Suwanee to do is to let individuals who want to be on the National Register do the work on their own," she said.
The city and DDA have looked at a district to save property owners from paying someone like Kocher or Glaze on their own.
Titshaw, who owns Progressive Woodworks on Main Street, said the city should consider more important issues in Old Town like rainwater collecting near the railroad tracks.
"I'm all for people being able to get on the Register, but I'm not sold on the district," he said. "There's more than a few people against it. I want to find out the facts before I jump on the wagon."
Titshaw has been in business there since 1983, and owns two buildings. He remembers a time when his business was about all there was of a downtown district.
"I was a laughingstock for 20 years," he said.
In promotional materials and in a meeting last month at Pierce's Corner, city and DDA officials have informed property owners about the reasons to pursue a historic district. Deming added there is no downside.
"Making sure they understand it's not going to hurt them," Burnette said. "It's another tool to make things happen there."