This story originally appeared in the April 2016 edition of Georgia's Cities.
Left: Downtown Duluth in the 1940s. Right: Rendering of the Block at Parsons.
Every Georgia downtown has a building or set of buildings that the community deems cannot be lost under any circumstance. These legacy buildings have survived time and fate to become etched in the collective memories of each citizen and visitor as “sacred” ground. But some mayors across Georgia are faced with dilemma of creating room in their downtowns while saving these buildings. This issue has been especially challenging for 140-year-old Duluth and its city officials who have seen a population increase from 600 to 28,000 in the last 40 years.
For life-long Duluth native Mayor Nancy Harris, the answer lay in examining the legacy of each of Duluth’s mayors and councilmembers through the years.
“We really do belong to a great heritage of community leaders who have served as mayor and council,” said the third-term Mayor. “Not all their decisions have stood the test of time. I am very fortunate to be part of a group of councilmembers who have all grown in the position to be thoughtful, deliberate, but bold leaders.”
Duluth needed that leadership to deal with the devastation of the recession.
“The recession was terrible and it coincided with what was to be our first term,” said Harris. “We had no choice but to take the time to really look at our city and determine what we were going to be. We realized the council had to take action and lead the way just like the councils before us.”
All Duluth councils knew the stock of 1870s buildings must be saved at all cost. These buildings were focused on the railroad and built to serve the agricultural economy. They had authenticity and created the picture postcard of Main Street that Duluth is known for. The same could not be said for the 20 or so industrial metal and steal buildings abutting Main Street. After a long planning process started by the Livable Cities Initiative (LCI), the 1990s mayor and council acquired all the tax parcels they needed to build the plan approved by the community and thus the genesis of Duluth’s Town Green and city hall. Private partners liked what they saw and joined to build a series of buildings around the green, which blended seamlessly with Main Street.
In 2008, all residential and commercial construction ground to a halt in the city of Duluth. Nothing happened for five years. The city looked to the past and decided to acquire all foreclosed properties in the downtown not acquired to build a town green. It ramped up its Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and charged the appointed board to become the redevelopment agency for downtown. The opportunity of the recession was realized in the form of affordable land, which was covered by mostly vacant industrial use. The city acquired 22 acres to lure a residential developer to downtown.
The biggest challenge was what to do about a two acre tract known as “The Block” that housed the old city hall and a series of commercial buildings, which for the community was very nostalgic. The Parsons family ran its retail empire out of the 1950s warehouse and storefronts. The old city hall itself was once the Duluth Baptist Church.
“Council agonized over this one before finally deciding this was where they would save the best and reset the future,” said Economic Development Manager Chris McGahee. “Those buildings were so iconic to the memories of pre-growth Duluth. They were the anchor but they just were not built well. We noticed from historic photos that Duluth rebuilt this block every 50 years and so this council decided it was time to do the same. ”
The city divided the tract into six, zero lot line commercial lots and transferred them to DDA. It retained ownership and control of all common property and commissioned commercial covenants and operating rules. DDA recruited top notch developer Jerry Miller of Fabric Developers and restaurant specialists Chris Carter and Gene Rice of Vantage Realty to turn the site into a 42,000-square-foot restaurant district. The city also recruited the 58-year-old, Alabama-based BBQ legend Dreamland BBQ to anchor the development. Private investment into the site totals $9.5 million dollars with Dreamland BBQ being the first restaurant to open in June 2016.
According to Harris, the vison is paying off and the numbers are astounding. After six years of zero growth, the city has 308 single family residences and 331 units of multi-family residences under construction throughout the city. The retail sector is building 114,000 square feet of new space. In 2016, Harris and Duluth City Council approved two landmark downtown residential projects in and adjacent to the core downtown. The Residential Group was approved to build 371 multifamily units on eight acres within walking distance of the new downtown restaurant district. The development features 11 live/work units and two 5,000 square foot restaurant spaces. Pulte Residential was recruited by the city to build a mix of 109 residential units behind and adjacent to city hall. The development will feature a blend of unique architectural styles focused on the historic character of downtown Duluth. Together the combined value of all these projects approaches $300 million.
Harris is thankful for the past and the Duluth’s previous leaders for building the town green, as it brought the city where it is today.
“We are doing our part to be as visionary as they were. We are saving their legacy and we believe we are building the next.”