A town for sale: Can Grantville be saved?

Credit: Hyosub Shin, hshin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin, hshin@ajc.com

This little town, 49 miles south of Atlanta, has died several deaths.

Once during the Great Depression.

Again when the cotton mill closed in 1980.

Once more in the Great Recession of 2008.

Now Grantville is hoping that, with the help of the undead, some developer can bring this town back to life.

The town’s decaying 19th-century buildings, ruined cotton warehouse and empty storefronts made a perfect home for zombies, and several episodes of “The Walking Dead” were filmed here, putting the town on the map.

Jim Sells, a residential developer and former mayor, is ready to capitalize on that buzz; though some in this town say that will take a miracle.

Sells bought 11 properties in foreclosure four years ago — practically the whole commercial strip that is Grantville’s Main Street. He says he paid $300,000 and invested $150,000 in fixing them up. Last month, he put the “town” (really just the commercial center) up for sale on eBay: $680,000 for nine properties; $940,000 for all 11.

“It went viral,” said former police chief Javier Garcia. (With shaved head and goatee, Garcia looks more like a movie bad guy than a small-town cop.) “We had stories in Time, Vanity Fair.”

On a recent sunny Friday, Sells takes a visitor to Main Street, a few blocks from Ga. 29, and not far from I-85. While the highway roars, Grantville, population 3,600, is almost silent, the quiet broken by the scraping sound of a skateboarder tacking down the middle of the broad boulevard at the center of town.

Tanned and fit at age 64, Sells has given this tour to thousands of visitors who come weekly to see sites where the AMC television series was partly filmed. In an episode called “Clear,” a character named Morgan has holed up in Grantville, trapping zombies and slowly going insane.

An interior scene was shot in an upstairs room in one of Sells’ empty mercantile buildings. Though the film company stripped and repainted the room when they left, Sells has re-created the setting, with graffiti on the walls, zombie-like mannequins standing around and a stash of weapons in one corner. “Those are expensive plastic replicas,” Sells reassures.

Morgan corralled his zombies in what was once a cotton warehouse and is now a roofless arena, three crumbling brick walls with a grassy field between them. The towering walls, the arched entryway, the green grass, convey the spooky aspect of an ancient ruin. “This is where everybody wants to get a picture,” says Sells.

Not everybody.

“I think it needs to be knocked down,” said Grantville Mayor Douglas Jewell, who is not impressed by “The Walking Dead” tourism. Jewell doesn’t think the zombie connection has helped Grantville very much, partly because when tourists come through, there’s nothing for them to buy.

(One business has cropped up to cater to “walker stalkers.” It’s Z Is For Zombie, a T-shirt and skateboard shop owned by Rebecca Campbell, a transplant from Wales, who also conducts tours.)

Sells sees the movie business as a way out, and would like Grantville to become the next Senoia. “Twelve years ago, Grantville and Senoia were both dead. There was nothing going on. Now look at Senoia.”

Senoia, 23 miles on the other side of Coweta County, has, in fact, blossomed. That is partly due to Scott Tigchelaar, president of Senoia-based Raleigh Studios Atlanta, who created a separate development company to buy up 22 properties in downtown Senoia and redevelop them into shops, restaurants and boutiques.

Senoia doubles as Woodbury, the hometown of “The Walking Dead,” so film crews come back every year, helping to replenish local coffers. But the presence of the production facilities — and the timeless facade of downtown — have drawn many other film projects, including “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Fried Green Tomatoes.”

It will take deep pockets to bring off the same miracle in Grantville, a city that operates under a yearly budget of about $6 million. “Buying the properties is one thing, fixing them up is something else,” said Rochelle Jabaley, a longtime resident and former city councilwoman. In addition to “a lot of damn money,” it will also require cooperation.

Don’t count on it, said Jabaley. “I’ve yet to see enough leadership working together to make something like that happen.”

Certainly the politics in Grantville can be vicious. Back in the ’90s, the town went through four mayors in two years. Sells, a retired Delta pilot, only lasted one term, and described his opponents as “the hounds of hell.” Recently a city manager and a police chief were forced out. Javier Garcia was appointed interim city manager, but he resigned, leaving Troup County resident Mike Stewart in charge.

Stewart has worked with the U.S. State Department and with nonprofits in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he says Iraq and Grantville have similarities. Both suffer by missing the big picture. One difference: “Here you don’t have to ride around in 45 pounds of body armor.”

The few merchants in Grantville sometimes have a hard time attracting their own fellow Grantvillians. Bryan Hazelton opened a drugstore on Main Street six months ago. He looked over his empty store on a recent Friday and commented that many of his potential customers are still driving to Newnan or Hoganville to get prescriptions filled. “It’s hard to convince them to change their habits.”

Yet newcomers love Grantville, and have filled up new developments outside of town. When Jabaley moved to Grantville in 1963, she said, “there were three grocery stores and no subdivisions. Now there are no grocery stores and 14 subdivisions. These people sleep here, and they don’t know there’s a town here. They get on the interstate like a bunch of lemmings and go to the sea every day, and the pied piper is Newnan and Atlanta.”

Jabaley would like to see those drivers take a walk, and follow those “walkers” into town. Then maybe Grantville can get back on its feet.