• A landmark of Dublin’s African-American community saved from bulldozers
• People living downtown plus 150 new jobs
• A cloud service in a 102-year-old post office building
• New hope for Dublin’s “skyscraper”
DUBLIN Ga. – Everything old in downtown Dublin is new again and high tech.
The renovation of an 80-year-old movie house sparked the rebirth of a decaying downtown that now includes a world class IT center located in a 102-year-old post office building, a leading edge re-seller of wireless cellular minutes that’s housed in three of downtown’s original buildings, and an advanced wound treatment center being built in the city’s historic African-American business district.
Dublin Mayor Phil Best said the downtown resurgence has created 150 new jobs. But he believes the greatest reward is the sense of community that has been built.
There were so many naysayers. They said we couldn’t turn around a blighted area. It’s very rewarding to now see everyone pulling in the same direction,” the mayor said.
Ironically, the urge to preserve may have been inspired by the demolition in the early 1960s of Laurens County’s elegant Victorian courthouse, built in 1895.
“If I had not been six years old, I would have been picketing out front of the building,” wrote local historian Scott Thompson. “Many folks just didn’t want to see the center piece of their heritage ripped down and replaced with a cold cookie cutter building, void of any character and charm whatsoever.”
While Thompson is an attorney, not an architect, his description of the new courthouse is spot on.
For nearly 30 years after the loss of the venerable courthouse downtown Dublin seemed to languish. A shopping mall was built on the opposite side of town and several modern movie theaters were constructed near the mall. Downtown buildings fell into disrepair and businesses fled.
A Turning Point in Dublin Ga.
Then in 1995 the city purchased the former Martin Theater building downtown. The movie house had sat empty so long a pond filled the stage end of the building. At one point the proud old building was used as a cotton warehouse. The building was gutted except for the four exterior walls and was renovated as a modern 620-seat performance space.
The Martin, renamed Theatre Dublin, has been a roaring success and has ignited a number of other renovation projects.
• A farmers pavilion named Market on Madison was constructed behind Theatre Dublin and the Fred Roberts. Locally grown produce and hand-made items are sold every Saturday morning, and the popular First Friday Concert Series is held from March to October. The three-acre space is also available for special events.
• The 1926 art deco Fred Roberts Hotel was converted into a mixed-use facility with retail, professional and residential condominiums. Mayor Best and his wife Cile sold their house and moved into one of the Fred Roberts condos. Units in the building sell for up to $220,000. In the past three years 14 full-time residents have moved downtown.
• The first phase of renovating and re-purposing the 1904 Carnegie Library building as an event space is on target for a July completion. A curated exhibit of 28 artworks from the State Art Collection will go on display from July 26 until September 11.
• Earlier this spring, development was completed on a plaza commemorating Dublin’s 202-year-history. Bicentennial Plaza links Market on Madison, Theatre Dublin, the Fred Roberts, the Carnegie Library, and the Dublin City Hall, which itself was an elementary school in 1959. When the building was converted into City Hall it was also gutted.
Two historic churches, Christ Episcopal (1898) and First Baptist (1908) face the Bicentennial Plaza.
Renovation and Revitalization Became Contagious
Morris Bank built a grand building across from Bicentennial Plaza. It features a quiet beautifully-landscaped pocket park with a fountain.
Deano’s Italian Grill took over a former movie house and dime store, restored the original brick walls and wooden floors and installed a wood burning oven imported from Italy. The eatery has twice been selected as one of USA Today’s “51 great pizza parlors.”
Rhino Wireless moved into three original buildings on Dublin’s main downtown artery, Jackson Street. Rhino buys minutes from major cellular networks and resells them to their dealer network.
Mayor Best located his own business in the restored Cummings Building on West Madison Street in Dublin’s historic African-American business district. A bakery shares the ground floor of the building with Best’s office. In the building next door a group of doctors are building the state-of-the-art Downtown Dublin Wound Center.
The Cummings Building was in an area that many said was beyond salvation. “It was ready for a bulldozer,” Best said.
But the building held great significance for many in Dublin. It was built by the city’s first African-American developer and housed the town’s first black-owned pharmacy and black Elks Club. James Brown, Little Richard and Otis Redding gave concerts in the parking lot behind the Cummings building. The mother of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson operated a restaurant in the building named Maude’s. Today, 20 people work in the building and five live in lofts above the retail space.
High Tech in Old Dublin
In my mind the most impressive development is the restoration of the 1912 Old Post Office on East Madison Street, a rather grim stretch that once housed pool halls and beer joints. I took Lewis Grizzard there to hoist a few at a dive bar named Estes.
I’m not the only one who was astounded by the rebirth of the post office. The building is the recipient of the 2013 Marguerite Williams Award for Excellence in Restoration presented by the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. Now some see the former pool hall and beer joints as the perfect spots to locate antique shops and art galleries.
As a child Jeff Davis, the owner of the Old Post Office, dreamed he would one day buy the structure, a dream that came true. Davis located the original blueprints and the building was returned to its original state. The main level of the building houses 15 employees of Alterra Networks, Davis’s computer networking and cloud service company.
The 4,500 square foot bunker-like basement of the building houses the servers for Alterra’s cloud clients. With 2-foot thick walls, 12-inch concrete ceilings and steel construction, the post office building met the structural needs for a cloud building that could withstand an F5 tornado. In addition the building is 111 miles from the coastal hurricane zone. One hundred miles is the preferred distance for a cloud operation, so Dublin is in the safe zone but still closer to coastal clients than Atlanta.
Alterra’s client list includes community banks, school boards, accounting firms and small enterprises usually with 50 to 100 employees.
While Davis is a history buff and a preservationist, his primary purpose for renovating the post office building was economic. In today’s dollars, the construction cost of the building would be $23 million, Davis says. He acquired the building for $20 a square foot and estimates that new construction for a building suitable for cloud services would run $500 to $1,000 a square foot. “I couldn’t have afforded to do it otherwise,” he says.
Davis believes preservation is good business.
Dublin has always been about commerce. Everyone I talk to wants to know how we are going to make a preservation effort viable. Is it going to be a coffee shop, a bakery or a cloud service?” Davis said.
New Hope for Dublin’s Skyscraper
Next on the renovation agenda may be the most challenging and significant venture of all, the restoration of Dublin’s seven-story “skyscraper.” For 101 years the First National Bank building has stood as the de-facto icon for the middle Georgia city.
Designed by the architect who was responsible for the Georgian Terrace Hotel in Athens, 10 Park Place at Five Points in Atlanta, and the Miami-Dade County Courthouse, the Dublin structure has been in steady decline for some 40 years. Several attempts to save it have failed.
Best says the preservation effort may now be only weeks away from receiving the historic preservation tax credit that would give the project a long-awaited green light. (UPDATE 8/9/14: The tax credit has been approved.)
Architectural plans have been drawn and financing is in place. Obtaining the $800,000 tax credit is the only hurdle that remains. For the first time since the 1970s the dream of saving the skyscraper is “very real,” Best said.
“We’re so much closer than we’ve ever been, and we have a lot of support.”
If restored the building would provide residential and commercial space with a penthouse apartment.
What Lies Ahead? Dealing with Education and Crime
Now in his fourth term as mayor, Best said Dublin’s two greatest challenges are improving education and dealing with crime.
“Crime has gotten a little out of hand, not compared to other communities but it’s not acceptable to us,” he said. “Our strategy is to prevent crime not just make arrests.”
Police officers on bicycles are being dispatched into high crime areas, one of them the neighborhood around Dublin’s scenic Stubbs Park on the outskirts of downtown. “People won’t use the park because they’re afraid to,” Best said.
By putting officers on bikes they will come in closer contact with people living in the neighborhood as opposed to riding by in a squad car, he said.
The city has also made a commitment to strictly enforce its dilapidated housing ordinance. So far 425 sub-standard structures have been torn down or brought up to code. Best said the city council is unanimous in support of this effort.
A proposed ordinance requiring code inspection of rental housing waits on City Council approval. Best is not a proponent of government intervention. But sometimes it’s required, he added.