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Dublin ready to light up its skyscraper - GMC classes will begin Oct. 1

http://www.macon.com/news/local/article32254113.html

Dublin ready to light up its skyscraper

BY WAYNE CRENSHAW
wcrenshaw@macon.com

DUBLIN -- Shortly after the sun sets on Sept. 10, a momentous event will happen here.

For the first time in 30 years, the seven-story First National Bank building will light up. At nearly 100 feet tall and said to be the tallest building between Macon and Savannah, it’s referred to by locals as “the skyscraper.”

In the coming weeks a restaurant will open on the first floor, and Georgia Military College will open a campus on the third, fourth and fifth floors. The second floor is a mezzanine.

The lighting ceremony, to take place at 8:30 p.m., puts a cap on a $3.8 million renovation project that many thought would never happen. Tara Bradshaw, director of the Dublin Downtown Development Authority and Main Street Dublin, said the ceremony will include a fireworks show.

“This is going to mean so much,” Bradshaw said. “It’s really going to be a game changer as far as downtown development.”

A grand opening is scheduled for Sept. 18 at 11 a.m.

At that event, many Dublin residents who have seen the building their entire lives will get to walk inside for the first time. Gov. Nathan Deal is planning to attend.

The building has been through multiple owners who had dreams of restoring it to its former glory, only to see those plans fall by the wayside. Some thought the building, vacant for three decades, was destined to stand as a permanent monument to Dublin’s past. A visiting journalist once referred to it as a sign that Dublin “had seen better days.”

Built mostly of steel, brick and stone, the 102-year-old building is rock solid and some have called it nearly fireproof. But bringing it up to code was considered too expensive to make restoring it worthwhile. Among other things, it needed a new heating and air-conditioning system, new wiring, a new elevator and a fire escape.

But after Gainesville businessman Jim Walters bought it last year for $250,000, things happened quickly. Walters, who is chairman of the Georgia Ports Authority board of directors, for years has owned most of the block on which the bank building sits. The bank was the only part of it he didn’t own.

He worked out a deal with GMC to be the anchor tenant. But a key, he said, was the federal and state historic preservation tax credits that the Downtown Development Authority secured. He also said local banks supported the financing.

“It’s been a good community effort,” Walters said. “We’ve had help all along the way.”

Garbutt Construction, a Dublin company known for historic preservation projects, is the primary contractor. Chris Davis, the project manager, said everywhere he goes people ask him about it.

“It’s probably had the most community interest of anything I’ve been a part of,” he said. “I went and bought fish yesterday, and the fish market guy was asking me how it was going.”

GMC TO OPEN IN OCTOBER

GMC is planning to start classes in the building Oct. 10, and Priscilla Adams Smith, the director of the Dublin campus, said she expects to have about 80 students. The school already has 40 enrolled and can take as many as 250, which she hopes for eventually.

Smith thinks it will offer a unique college experience for those seeking a two-year degree. The biggest challenge the school may have is keeping students from getting distracted by the view.

“It’s going to be absolutely amazing,” she said as she and Davis gave a tour of the building recently, amid many workers busily putting on the finishing touches. “I think it’s going to bring some new life to the downtown area.”

The top two floors are still up for grabs, but Walters is optimistic those will be filled. He is in talks with an attorney’s office to take up one floor, and the other may be for various offices. He said he has some prospective tenants for those as well.

“It looks to me like it’s going to be full pretty quickly,” Walters said.

The renovation also included some special outside lighting, so the building will be lit at night.

While GMC is the anchor tenant, the restaurant will give the public a chance to go inside the building. Very soon, people will eat sandwiches in the same spot where a century ago loans were being signed that built the city.

The restaurant will be called Landmark Cafe and Market, owned by Robert and Jennifer Shaffer, who also own Deano’s Italian in downtown Dublin. USA Today named Deano’s the best pizzeria in Georgia.

Robert Shaffer said he hopes the cafe will open a few days after the building’s grand opening. The cafe initially will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and may open for breakfast starting next year when GMC begins morning classes.

“I think we will have good community response,” he said. “It’s a new concept for downtown.”

One find of interest during the renovation was a cigar tube discovered inside a wall when the windows were being replaced. In the early 1970s, Davis said, a building across the street caught fire, and the fire was so intense it blew out windows in the bank building.

Someone who worked on one of the upper floors made note of the fire and window replacement in a piece of paper, and included the names of some local, state and national elected officials at the time. He put it in the tube and left it inside the wall while the new windows were being installed.

Davis said the message and cigar tube were put back inside another container, along with a similar message from today, and put back inside the wall.

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.