July 21, 2017 | News

VR breaks ground on new visitor's center

Writer: Ken Denney

Published July 20, 2017

Villa Rica broke ground Monday for the renovation of a former gas station into a new visitor's center, the first project of a master plan to upgrade downtown into tourist-friendly area.

A host of officials, including state legislators and tourism officials, were on hand for the ceremony, which took place at the former Butterball's Auto and Repairs building, 121 W. Bankhead Highway. The former service station, which dates back to the 1930s, will be renovated for the project which will also include a neighboring duplex.

The building has long been considered an eyesore in downtown, but city officials hope that its renovation will help lead the way in further transformations, making the downtown area more appealing to residents and visitors alike.

The facility will serve as a combination welcome and visitor's center for the city, which was designated last December as a Regional Visitor Information Center by the state Department of Economic Development.

But it will also serve other uses, including a meeting and conference center and will host at least two start-up businesses, providing retail space for companies that are just getting off the ground.

However, it was the importance of the building's role in promoting tourism to Villa Rica and the rest of west Georgia that was the focus of the remarks made during the ceremony.

"It's important that we understand our role in the state as far as an economic engine," Christopher Pike, director of Downtown Development and Tourism, told the crowd. "As I always tell people, tourism isn't about going and visiting places; tourism is about economic development and job creation. When you look at it, and approach it in that manner, you understand the benefit of investing in tourism."

He said that the visitor center was an example of that investment.

As he and other speakers addressed the crowd, passing vehicles often drowned out their words. But many of the speakers remarked that the traffic was an indicator of the commerce that powers Villa Rica's economy; commerce that is expected to increase as the city continues to grow.

"I want some of that commerce to stop," said Mayor Jeff Reese. "I don't want them to drive through Villa Rica; I want them to stop in Villa Rica, and I want them to be able to eat at the restaurants and go to the stores next door."

The idea of transforming the old auto repair shop into a visitor's center originated with a study of the future of downtown development done by the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government and other agencies.

They developed a "master plan" designed to focus the expected growth of the city -- nearly 35,000 people by 2025 -- into the downtown area, and so avoid the kind of sprawl that neighboring fast-growing communities have experienced. They envisioned a downtown area that welcomes pedestrians while preserving the heritage and architecture of its existing buildings.

But city leaders also want to encourage tourists to visit the city -- and bring their tourism dollars.

In his remarks to the crowd, State Sen. Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, chairman of the senate Committee on Economic Development and Tourism, noted that tourism put $61billion into the state economy last year, more than double the impact in 2012. Tourism, he added, supports 450,000 jobs in the state and brings in $3.2 billion in state and local taxes.

He said that tourists who come to the new visitor's center would do so because they want to know about the area's unique history, which dates back to the early 1820s as the site of one of the nation's first gold rushes.

"This is going to be a huge step to ensure that we can promote not just Villa Rica but this entire region, this entire part of the state," Dugan said.

State Rep. Micah Gravley, R-Douglasville, noted that Villa Rica has a "positive impact," not only on Douglas and Carroll counties, but beyond to Paulding County.

"You guys have continued to move the ball forward, " Gravley said. "But you've not forgotten one integral part: you haven't lost the integrity of the downtown community. You haven't compromised the character of the downtown community."

The renovated garage will look much as it did in the mid 1930s, when it was one of the first gas stations established on the Bankhead Highway. However, the repair bays will be decorative only; they will be filled by retail spaces that will be available to start-up companies that cannot yet afford their own brick and mortar spaces.

In addition, the visitor's center will include a duplex that is already on the property, as well as additional parking spaces.

Pike told those attending the ceremony that it was hoped that the renovation of the building would spur neighboring property owners to convert their properties into retail stores and restaurants.

The plan for the visitor center was launched during the mayoral administration of J. Collins, who now represents House District 68.

"Its just so nice to see a culmination of all these efforts and the culmination of the work that has been done by so many over the generations to make downtown Villa Rica what it is and what it's going to be," Collins told the crowd. "I think that's our story more than anything."