Duluth undergoes renewal

Amid economic crisis, city sees development

When Henry Harrington opened his pizzeria on Main Street in April 2008, downtown Duluth was a bleak landscape: Half the buildings were vacant, no businesses were open after 5 p.m., and few people walked the streets during the day.

“There was hardly any reason to come down here,” said Harrington, partner/general manager of Steverino’s. “Things were pretty touch-and-go here in that first year.”

The situation got even worse during the economic crisis that swept the nation that fall. But Duluth has rebounded in recent months, experiencing a run of economic growth and development that has caught the attention of its neighbors in metro Atlanta.

“Everyone is always talking about how Suwanee is so great,” said Snellville Mayor Kelly Kautz, who enjoyed lunch at a downtown Duluth restaurant recently. “But I think Duluth has it going on.”

City officials credit the revival to long-range planning and short-term hustle that allowed them to weather the recession.

Central to Duluth’s comeback was the opening of a $13 million City Hall in late 2008.

During the past few months, Duluth has celebrated the addition of a metal distributor and processor in an abandoned steel facility and the near total occupancy of the downtown business district.

“I think it’s like dropping a penny in a pond,” Mayor Nancy Harris said. “It’s been a ripple effect. And we still have some great things planned.”

The prospects in Duluth weren’t nearly so rosy when economic development manager Chris McGahee arrived in October 2008.

The Gwinnett County city of about 27,000 had big aspirations before the crippling economic crisis. Like a lot of Gwinnett cities, it went through rapid growth in the previous decade.

But the demand for new development quickly dried up, going from a high of 517 new building permits in 2005 to 15 in 2009. McGahee said a number of deals fell through in his first few months on the job, including plans for a $23 million mixed-use project — featuring residential, retail, office and restaurant space — on the former City Hall block.

That disappointment was coupled with the loss of several longtime local businesses, including a couple of major lumber companies — leaving Duluth with lots of vacant space and few interested renters or buyers.

“There was gloom and doom and despair everywhere,” McGahee said.

McGahee managed to convince several business owners to cluster into a couple of city-owned storefronts along Main Street, creating the appearance of a vibrant downtown when there really wasn’t one. “These were tenants who basically needed an ark to weather a great flood,” he said.

City officials also turned their attention to their borders: Duluth persuaded several business owners in the 50-acre Blue Ridge Industrial Park to pursue annexation into the city, preventing them from becoming part of the city of Peachtree Corners.

Duluth officials estimate annexing the entire industrial park, which has a property value of about $13 million, will bring in about $87,000 in annual tax revenue.

The move paid off again last month when Duluth announced that local metal processor and distributor Ryerson Inc. would move into the abandoned steel factory in the industrial park.

Back in downtown, Duluth scored again when Eddie Owen, founder of Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, agreed to open a live music venue in the oft-maligned Red Clay Theatre.

City leaders and business owners said they are relieved someone has come in with a plan to revitalize the Red Clay, which has been a financial drain on Duluth for years. The city has spent more than $2 million since 2004 to convert the building into a professional theater with limited success. In recent years, the Red Clay has been unoccupied at times, suffering problems ranging from inexperienced management to mold.

The opening of the Red Clay — and, more recently, a Pure Taqueria restaurant — have provided hope Duluth will continue to pull out of the economic doldrums.

“Business is booming,” said Greg Lindquist, owner of Best of Brews on Main Street. “My only regret is I wish I had rented a bigger building.”

Signs of success in Duluth

Here are a few of Duluth’s recent growth and development successes:

• The city annexed 50-acre Blue Ridge Industrial Park near Buford Highway and North Berkeley Lake Road. The park would have been included within the boundaries of Peachtree Corners, Gwinnett County’s newest city.

• Pure Taqueria, an Alpharetta-based Mexican restaurant chain, opened a new restaurant on Main Street in downtown in October.

• Eddie Owen, founder of Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, opened a live music venue in the city’s old Red Clay Theatre in November.

• Ryerson Inc., a metal processor and distributor, announced in December it would expand local operations by moving into an abandoned steel warehouse in Blue Ridge Industrial Park.

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