Ball Ground Mayor Rick Roberts started the walking work session in the Downtown Plaza at 7 p.m., leading the council and residents down Main Street and stopping to explain the importance of each building, lot or monument.
Roberts said it was “one thing to sit in the council chambers and talk about something,” but seeing downtown in person gave the council a different perspective.
The mayor talked about the history of many of the vacant buildings downtown, from their busy past to their owners, and explained the difficulties of downtown development and bringing in new businesses.
From building owners who do not want to rent out their space to deteriorating structures to the task of funding, the city faces some significant challenges, city council members learned during the tour.
But Roberts said, despite the challenges for downtown, he sees a vibrant future for Ball Ground business, noting his excitement about the Downtown Development Authority director.
“Our DDA is going to be very critical, as in the case of other cities that have had success downtown, we’ve got an energetic leader now, John Byrd, and I think it’s a real important part of the puzzle,” Roberts said. “The DDA has authority to condemn, borrow money. The city can’t borrow money to do anything… we need more businesses in this town.”
Roberts said the city wants to get grants for funding some façade restorations and renovations of historic buildings.
One of the first stops on the downtown walk was a storefront, available for rent, with a mixed martial arts sign and a new, historic site plaque on an exterior wall.
City Manager Eric Wilmarth explained how the historic markers were being added to many sites downtown.
“We have five buildings marked,” Wilmarth said. “Last week we ordered six more, so within a couple of weeks there’ll be 11 buildings marked. We’re trying to do five or six buildings a year, but after we get the next round done, Councilmember Stoner is over historic and natural resources, and they’re planning to do a walking brochure of the downtown that correlates to the plaques, and we’ll tell the history and all the different uses that the building has seen up to the current time.”
Roberts said many people in the city have old glass Coca-Cola bottles that say “made in Ball Ground” on the bottom, pointing to the historic marker on a building behind him.
“Constructed around 1900,” the plaque reads. “These buildings served as the Ball Ground Pharmacy and Doctor’s Office and, from 1903 to 1933, the Coca-Cola bottling plant.”
Roberts added that a few years ago, with the help of the Cherokee County Historical Society, Ball Ground was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and said it was “quite an honor,” noting Ball Ground may have the largest collection of historic buildings in the county.
Creating more parking downtown was an issue that came up a few times during the walk. Though there are many options for additional downtown parking, Wilmarth said they each come with their own challenge.
Wilmarth said an option the city is investigating is the possibility of renting one of the two marble-filled lots downtown.
One of the two lots, the one next to the railroad tracks, would be a costly option.
“We received estimates early this week on what it would take to remove the marble from here, and that’ll enable us to go back and make an offer to the owners on leasing this property,” Wilmarth said. “And it’s extensive, it’s costly. A lot depends, too, on if they choose to not be attached to the marble we can scoop it up in dump trucks, haul it off and put it in a hole, and that would cost about $10,000. If they want to save it, and have it all hand-palletized and hauled out of here, we’re looking at closer to $60,000 to get this lot cleared, and that’s out of the realm of the possibility to lease the lot.”
The second marble-filled lot could be a cheaper option, Wilmarth said.
“The owner has told us they can probably do without this stone, where it could just be scooped up and hauled off. So we’ve received estimates on hauling this off and depending on those costs, we’ll be able to make them an offer on either a purchase or a lease to have this property for off-street parking,” Wilmarth said.
The city is talking about converting Mound Street into a one-way road, running into Main Street, and Wilmarth said that since an average of only 16 cars use the road daily, there would be a limited negative impact to add about 20 parking spaces to the area.
A lot of progress has been made downtown, and Roberts pointed out examples throughout the walk. From the Streetscapes project updating sidewalks to the public amphitheater being built in the City Park, a lot has changed in the past few decades.
Roberts told the group of walkers about how he joined the city council in 1986, when they had meetings in the building which has since become “The Green Hen Antiques and Collectibles store.” He said the building dated back to the 1900s and served as City Hall for more than a century.
“For most of us, this is where we started,” Roberts said. “The first meeting we had … we sat around a space heater on dinette chairs. That was the city council meeting.”
Now, the city council holds its meetings in its own council chambers at Ball Ground City Hall.
Councilman Mickey O’Malley said that the baseball field downtown would be “state-of-the-art” after updates were completed.
“We’ve gutted the entire concession stand and they’ve remodeled it, and are in the process of remodeling not only the concession stand but also the bathrooms here,” O’Malley said. “We’re making this handicap accessible, because that’s always been a problem up here. The main thing on the field is they’ve added irrigation, lasared the field, and are in the process of sodding the field ... it’s going to look really good.”
Roberts also noted the area near the railroad tracks with the historic “Battle of Taliwa” sign, with memorial stones, a time capsule, flag post, Cherokee rose bush and planters, could use some “sprucing up.”
“We have a great small city with so much potential,” Roberts said at the conclusion of the walking tour.