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Clarkesville DDA set to facilitate rebuild in downtown core

Now that a fire report showing “cause undetermined” has been released from the Georgia State Fire Marshal’s Office regarding the March 5 fire in downtown Clarkesville, the Clarkesville Downtown Development Authority is ready to move forward with plans to clean up and rebuild.

During its second meeting, held June 16, Clarkesville City Manager Barbara Kesler told the authority since they have received the report, “we should be able to start cleaning up soon.”

“We’ve been working on a plan the whole time [since the fire],” Kesler said. “Things are starting to gel now.”

Also triggered by receiving the final report, property owners will now be able to close with their insurance companies and decide whether they will rebuild themselves or sell to the city.

Clarkesville councilwoman Leigh Johnston said she thinks things should begin to “shake out pretty quickly” and that property owners will have the opportunity to “flip the switch on how they’ve decided to move forward, [whether] they’re going to rebuild themselves, if their insurance company provides for remediation funds … I think a lot of it will be worked out by this Friday.”

In addition to working with the Department of Community Affairs, the city expects to hear from Danny Bivins, public service associate with the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia. Bivins will make a presentation during the Clarkesville City Council’s work session, to be held 6 p.m. Thursday, June 19, at city hall. Kesler said Bivins will be at the meeting “with some really interesting information for everybody,” and the public is invited to attend.

Regarding the timing of the rebuild, Kesler said the master plan process using the Carl Vinson Institute is “an extensive process” and could take six months to a year to complete.

“But they’re aware of the fact that we need this central business district planned as quickly as we can get it,” Kesler said. “And they’re prepared to do that first to completion and then do the rest. … But like Billy Peppers (of DCA) said, ‘If we’re going to do what’s best for the city, it’s not necessarily what’s quickest.’ We want to get everybody built and back open, but we also want to assure we do what’s best for Clarkesville in the long run.”

Part of the process will include community input, Main Street Manager Mary Beth Horton said. “It wouldn’t be a decision made behind closed doors,” she said. “They involve everybody. I think everybody would feel like they had a part in the rebuild process, because they can put their opinions in.”

DDA member Lee Hull, who owns Sweet Breads Café, one of the businesses destroyed in the fire, asked about having to wait “six months to a year” to begin rebuilding, and Kesler said, “Not necessarily.”

“They can come back with plans, and it will depend on how quick we approve it and come up with a solution for the owners … and whoever owns the property can start immediately,” Franklin Brown, Clarkesville councilman and DDA member, said.

“Realistically, if we had a design today, to get the architectural drawings, to hire the contractor, to get the engineering and all of that … I’d be shocked if you were building anything, if we had it today, in three months,” Kesler said. “It’s going to take a little bit of time, but I think the end product is going to be good.”

Though the fire marshal’s report took a long time, Brown said, “the upside of it was it was thorough and it cleared any clouds of any improper activity by any individuals.”

DDA member Dan Barry, who owns North Georgia Floors, said he’s ready for the public to know “things are moving forward.”

“People love to talk, and it’s time for some positive stuff,” Barry said. “I’m glad the decision by the fire marshal was made. It’ll be wonderful for the townspeople to know things are moving forward with rebuilding the square.”

Barry said he had heard from people wondering why nothing has happened regarding the cleanup and rebuild.

“We’ve had many customers saying it appears nothing has been done,” Barry said. “People think that kind of thing. It’s ridiculous because they all know, if they think about it, the investigation and insurance work … but people seem to think nothing’s going on.”

“A lot of things have been going on behind the scenes since the fire,” Kesler said. “There’s been a lot of progress made so far. Cleanup will start happening quickly.”

During the meeting, the authority received a preliminary drawing done by Carmine Fischetti of the Department of Com- munity Affairs showing what the square could look like when rebuilt. Authority members discussed the drawing, but stressed it is preliminary. They expect to receive more drawings from the Carl Vinson Institute, and they expect to include public input.

Though the back of the buildings was not shown in the drawings, Kesler said it would have a “courtyard feel.”

“We want you to be able to get into the Square from the back, and we want you to know you’re in downtown Clarkesville, the same as you see from the front,” she said.

The DDA will hold its next meeting at 8:30 a.m. Monday, July 21. However, members will hold open Monday morning, June 30, “in case something happens in the next two weeks,” Brown said.

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