‘The Walking Dead’ brought traffic, but also tourists, business and more residents

In 2011, “The Walking Dead” needed to find a downtown to turn into a fictional city for Season 3 of what was becoming the biggest basic cable show of all time.

Michael Riley, locations manager for the AMC zombie series, thought of the Coweta County town of Senoia, with its charming stretch of historic buildings and its distinctive water tower.

At Maguire’s Irish Pub, dozens of local business owners listened as Riley laid out plans to transform the city into a post-apocalyptic enclave, “Woodbury.” That meant building a gate entrance, with fake sentries, that could be rolled in at one end of Main Street during shoots, forcing customers to enter stores and restaurants from the rear.

Some business owners openly were skeptical, wondering how disruptive this would be.

However, AMC allayed fears by compensating the locals for the inconvenience. The City Council approved the plan.

And, for almost everyone involved, the gamble paid off. Once AMC began airing episodes featuring Woodbury, fans began flocking to Senoia, hoping for glimpses of such cast members as Andrew Lincoln and Melissa McBride.

“One afternoon, toward the end of Season 3,” Riley said, “I counted 21 out-of-state license plates parked on Main Street, and every parking spot in town was taken.”

ExplorePHOTOS: Life in Senoia after 'The Walking Dead'

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

This was followed by another “Walking Dead” intrusion in Season 4: erecting an unsightly 15-foot-tall corrugated metal wall around a burgeoning development adjacent to downtown Senoia. AMC, thinking they’d be using the space for at least a couple of years, agreed to build 10 fully usable homes, as well as a prop church, windmill and solar panels.

While Woodbury only lasted one season, the walled-off property, dubbed Alexandria, would remain in use for eight years. The wall became a year-round visual reminder of the show’s presence, and that fueled even more tourism. Only after “The Walking Dead” wrapped its 11th and final season this past March did the walls begin to come down. By late August, only a few remnants remained.

Senoia is the latest example of a Georgia locale that leveraged its ties to a popular TV show or film. Covington, in Newton County, actively promotes the fact that Carroll O’Connor’s police drama, “In the Heat of the Night,” shot there three decades ago, and also welcomes fans of the CW’s “The Vampire Diaries,” which shot in the area in the 2010s. Savannah continues to draw visitors seeking reminders of 1994′s Oscar-winning film “Forrest Gump,” and both the best-selling book and 1997 film adaptation of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

Pronounced “Seh-noy” by locals and not the more obvious “Seh-noya,” the former railroad hub of Senoia has the quaint characteristics of the fictional Mayberry. It’s 5 square miles, and is centered around a modest two-block retail district downtown, with a grass median down the middle of Main Street. Senoia’s population, around 3,500 when “The Walking Dead” arrived, now exceeds 5,000.

A souvenir store in the heart of Senoia, the Woodbury Shoppe, opened in 2013. Entrepreneurs started bus, walking and golf cart tours focused on the show. The TV series’ executive producer, Greg Nicotero, and actor Norman Reedus (the brooding, laconic Daryl Dixon on the show) opened a restaurant on Main Street called Nic & Norman’s in 2016.

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Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

None of this happened in a vacuum. Senoia Enterprises chief Scott Tigchelaar and his uncle, Paul Lombardi, were key figures in the saga.

Lombardi is part of Hollywood royalty. His dad, Joe, was a special effects technician who worked on TV shows such as “I Love Lucy,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Star Trek,” as well as films, including “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now.”

Paul Lombardi opened Riverwood Studios in Senoia in 1989, drawn by the town’s proximity to Peachtree City and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Tigchelaar, now 52, joined his uncle out of college in the 1990s to help out.

For a time, the studio was a success. Riverwood drew the 1991 hit “Fried Green Tomatoes,” the 1992 Mick Jagger action flick “Freejack” and 1994’s “The War,” starring Kevin Costner. But, Canada began offering tax credits, work at the studio dried up, and Tigchelaar moved back to Toronto. Riverwood shut down in the early 2000s, and Lombardi focused on his special effects business.

In 2003, Tigchelaar moved back to Senoia and began working with politicians to pass tax credits to draw Hollywood back to Georgia and help revive Riverwood. It was slow going, as other states and countries jumped on the tax credit bandwagon.

In 2008, the Georgia Legislature finally passed generous tax credits for TV and film production companies, and that drew interest from Hollywood producers.

The cable channel AMC was an early arrival, long before HBO and Marvel showed up in Georgia. Better known for prestige shows such as “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” AMC took a risk entering the horror world with “The Walking Dead,” based on a series of graphic novels. Downtown Atlanta was its home base for the first six episodes. Much to everyone’s surprise, the drama became a breakout hit.

For Season 2, the producers needed an isolated farm as a primary setting, and locations manager Riley discovered a lovely 19th century Victorian home that coincidentally abutted Lombardi’s semi-dormant 120-acre Riverwood Studios.

“It was almost too good to be true,” said producer Nicotero.

“The Walking Dead” shot that season in relative peace, using both the studio and the farm. The show grew even bigger, though, and that led to downtown Senoia becoming Woodbury, followed by Alexandria and the wall.

Tigchelaar and Lombardi sold Riverwood Studios to AMC in 2017, but Tigchelaar is a co-owner of Nic & Norman’s and the Woodbury Shoppe as well as a popular weekly farmer’s market. He also co-owns the property where Alexandria was located.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Tigchelaar had big plans for the property even before “The Walking Dead.” He wanted a mixed development neighborhood that could double as a live set to complement Riverwood Studios.

In 2012, Southern Living renovated a 190-year-old farm home in the neighborhood into its Idea House. Empty nesters Susan and Evan Stitt purchased it for $575,000 in 2013.

Susan, a book marketer, and Evan, chief financial officer for a small manufacturing company, said that, when Tigchelaar told them about the wall, they decided it might be fun. Plus, they were paid a fair fee for the disruption. “Our kids were big ‘Walking Dead’ fans,” Susan said. “Our parent cred went up instantly.”

The Stitts were among a handful of families who lived inside Alexandria. They spent years watching scenes being filmed from their wraparound front porch.

“We’d get home at night and drive in, and there’d be zombies everywhere,” Evan said. “If they’re in the street, they’d have to get up and move, so we can drive around them and park.”

“I’d go outside to walk my dog,” Susan said, “and there are 200 people outside my driveway. It was such a surreal experience.”

The producers sent emails that included a map of where they were shooting each day, where the couple could park, and when to turn their lights out. They also had to keep their front yard disheveled, since it was supposed to be post-apocalyptic.

One bonus: 24/7 security. “We didn’t have to lock our doors for eight years,” Susan said. “We have to remember to do that again.”

Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Seth Gilliam, who played Father Gabriel for seven seasons on the show, resides in New York City. When he arrived in 2014, he first thought Senoia was a set built by AMC, with fake storefronts.

But, once he realized it was a real town, he enjoyed strolling around on off days. He’d visit the Woodbury Shoppe and sign figurines. He’d grab a vanilla coffee milkshake at Senoia Coffee and Cafe. And given this was his first big role and he had a real sense of frugality, he took full advantage of a 50% discount card at Nic & Norman’s that Nicotero handed out to actors. “I think I was the only one who used it as often as I did,” Gilliam said.

And he was perfectly happy to take photos with fans. “The employees at the stores and restaurants would become very protective of me,” he said. “They’d tell people that they need to let me eat in peace, but I didn’t mind. People came from all over the world, and it cost me nothing to give them a 10-second selfie.”

On his final day in Senoia, Gilliam grabbed his final shake, ate steak tips at Nic & Norman’s and snapped photos of a sidewalk commemorating various TV shows and films produced in Senoia.

“I lived in Peachtree City,” he said. “I’m going to miss mountain biking on the golf cart trails, going over the script in my mind and prepping what choices I was going to make as Gabriel. Those were really some of my fondest memories.”

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

In mid-July, Tonya Hammel and Debbie DiMuro drove 485 miles overnight to Senoia from Kentucky in Hammel’s Kia Sorento, decorated with fake blood splotches and the words “Don’t Open. Dead Inside.”

It’s a pilgrimage they have done twice a year for eight years. This time, they wanted to see workers dismantling the Alexandria walls.

“We actually had tears in our eyes,” Hammel said. “It was bittersweet. We were here in 2014 when the wall was going up.”

Even with the show gone, Hammel said they plan to come back in October for The Camp, a mini-”Walking Dead” convention centered around fan art created by artist Oscar Rodriguez, who lives in a Detroit suburb.

Rodriguez, who also has done background work for “The Walking Dead,” considers Senoia his second home. “I have more friends here in Senoia than I do in Michigan,” he said. “I’ve been recognized at a Five Below in Newnan and walking the streets of Grantville.”

Credit: CONTRIB

Credit: CONTRIB

They all used to be “walker stalkers,” the fans who would bring a chair and plant themselves on the railroad tracks and watch the Alexandria wall for hours, jockeying for position whenever the gate opened, in order to catch a glimpse of a cast member. At the series’ peak, 50 to 100 people would be there. Occasionally, actors would step outside their trailers, meet the fans, and sign autographs and pose for pictures.

“Norman would come out and sign,” Rodriguez said. “Lennie James (who plays Morgan on the show) came out to talk to us. We got to meet Andrew Lincoln. I’ve chased the show, been part of the show and now created a show based on the show. It’s been surreal!”

They all have spent big bucks at the Woodbury Shoppe, run by Senoia resident Melissa Coppage. Hammel purchased a piece of the souvenir wall for $100.

Coppage said business isn’t what it was at its peak, when wall-to-wall people would crowd the store on weekends, but the shop remains financially viable.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Another fan drawn to Senoia was Missy Roberts. While living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Roberts, a former flight attendant, decided on a whim in 2019 to ride her Harley to check out Senoia, because she was a big “Walking Dead” fan. It was a rough 12-hour trip. “I hit a lot of rain,” she said.

But, once there, she stayed at a local bed and breakfast, and fell in love with Senoia. She moved there soon afterward.

“Best decision I ever made,” said Roberts, who for a time ran the Senoia Welcome Center on Main Street.

Senoia, in the meantime, gradually is moving beyond “The Walking Dead.”

The 10 homes that AMC had built are for sale (mostly in the $800,000 to $900,000 range), under contract or already sold. (Tigchelaar and AMC are splitting proceeds from the sales of the homes.) The pandemic prompted the Woodbury Shoppe to move to a smaller location, with just three licensed vendors providing merchandise, down from 25 at its peak. The Georgia Tour Co., which still does “Walking Dead”-themed tours, is transitioning its Main Street space from a “Walking Dead” focus to a more traditional gift shop. German artist Chris Twellmann, a doppelgänger for actor Michael Cudlitz (Abraham on the show), might shut down his own horror-themed store in a year or so and move on.

But, Senoia residents, many recent arrivals, are not worried about the town’s future.

Downtown now has more than 100 businesses, from hair salons and boutiques to pizza and Mexican restaurants. A new brewery is set to arrive early next year, and a Publix just opened nearby. Real estate prices have skyrocketed, as they have all over metro Atlanta. The biggest problem now is a lack of parking.

“This area is very hot,” said Clarissa Uhl, a Newnan realtor. “You can’t find inventory anywhere.”

Nicotero, “The Walking Dead” producer, has no plans to sell his home in nearby Peachtree City, and still visits Senoia as often as he can.

“Part of my goal,” he said, “is to find another project to bring back down to Riverwood Studios, so I can keep filming there.”