Suwanee recently received approval from the state Department of Natural Resources to further pursue a 67-acre area in Old Town to be nominated for the National Register of Historic Places. (Staff Photo: Keith Farner)
SUWANEE — When Michael Deming, Jr. entered into an agreement with the city of Suwanee nearly two years ago, the revitalization of a Suwanee landmark was contingent on tax credits and incentives.
Late last month, approval from the state Department of Natural Resources was given to Suwanee to further pursue a 67-acre area in Old Town to be nominated for the National Register of Historic Places. The Old Town historic district includes about 60 properties that are centered along Main Street.
“We’ve taken a giant step toward helping to preserve our historic assets by making it less expensive for commercial and residential property owners in Old Town to maintain and improve their historically significant properties,” said Denise Brinson, economic and community development director for the city. “We want to be clear that this designation does not place restrictions on property owners.”
Added Deming, “This was a big hurdle for us to get over.”
DNR’s approval makes owners of historically significant properties in the district eligible for state preservation grants and tax credits. The next step comes at the federal level. The U.S. Department of the Interior will consider Suwanee’s historic district and make the final decision about its inclusion on the National Register.
“From what the state’s told us, it’s most likely going to go through,” Deming said. “They have a good track record.”
The state hurdle was a key step in a process that began in December, 2011 when the Deming Group, LLC agreed to a 50-year, lease-to-purchase transaction for Pierce’s Corner with Suwanee’s Downtown Development Authority for $258,640, financed at a 3.5 percent interest rate.
That came about eight years after it was purchased by the city for about $400,000. Deming also has the right to purchase the building within the first 22 years of the agreement.
Pierce’s Corner, a 6,000-square-foot, two-story building that was built in 1910 is currently vacant, but has served as a general store, grocery store, cotton gin, dentist office, silent movie theater and antiques store.
“We were very excited that it went through,” Deming Jr. said. “We were definitely worried (because) the historic district was a vital part of the project. We were concerned when there was some opposition to it, but in the end, there was just a small number of people opposed to it.”
Much of the opposition came from a group of property owners that labeled themselves “Main Street Neighbors North of Stonecypher,” who didn’t want to be included in the area.
Linda Fleming, who grew up in Suwanee and often spoke at City Council meetings on behalf of the Main Street Neighbors, said when the process began that there are no major advantages to an individual property owner to live in a National Historic Register other than to say they live there.
Another critic of the district was Maurice Cook, who said at the August City Council meeting that he was disappointed that the area didn’t include the Jackson Street cemetary, where several veterans are buried.
Suwanee native John Titshaw, who owns and operates Progressive Woodworks, owns three buildings on Main Street and said the Register wouldn’t hurt him, but he doesn’t want it to hurt his neighbor either.
“Suwanee people just don’t want to be told what to do,” Titshaw said. “I don’t want to stand in the way of it, but I don’t want to cram it down somebody else’s throat that doesn’t want it.”
Deming said his group would begin the process of securing financing for the project and applying for tax credits, but that also is contingent on construction drawings. The tax credits would be used to strengthen the building’s support and firm up bricks and mortar.
“A lot of wheels started moving when we got this approved,” he said.
Deming’s original plans for Pierce’s Corner remain. He would like to open a casual dining restaurant on the ground floor, and a business that’s an incubator for startup businesses on the second floor. There are also plans for the building to be certified in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.
Parking remains a concern for Deming, too. He said city officials are willing to make a parking area in a gravel lot across Main Street, but he’s not sure how many spaces would fit.
“We’re just happy to have it done, and we’re ready to move on to the next step to getting the project completed as quickly as possible,” Deming said. “The city wants it done, and we want it done.”