Published Monday, March 25, 2013

Senoia goes from sleepy town to bustling downtown

Senoia just might be the ultimate small town success story.

In the 21st century, the eastern Coweta County location has gone from sleepy little town to a verifiable tourist destination bustling with shops and restaurants.

In an economic downturn, Senoia continues to grow.

A big reason for that is Georgia's tax incentives for the film and television industry. When film productions began to roll into the state, Senoia, already home to a movie studio, was ready. More than two years before the incentives went into effect, Scott Tigchelaar and Paul Lombardi of Riverwood Studios — now Raleigh Studios Atlanta — began buying up vacant lots and buildings in downtown Senoia, and began "The Historic Senoia Project" to redevelop the town, and to design the new facilities to help the city function as a "living backlot" for film productions.

Fast forward to 2013, and Main Street is buzzing, filled with new buildings that don't look new, and lots of cute and interesting shops and eateries.

The town is also bustling with tourists, most of whom are coming there to see where scenes from the phenomenally popular AMC television network series "The Walking Dead" are filmed. Others originally visited the town to see either the 2010 or 2012 Southern Living Idea Houses, and some want to drop in at country singing star Zac Brown's restaurant and performance space.

Downtown has been spruced up with a "streetscapes" project, benches, and landscaping — though sometimes that landscaping has to be left to run wild when "The Walking Dead" is filming.

The city government has spruced up itself, as well. City Hall has gotten an extensive facelift inside and out, and the city's old police station is now the welcome center and a retail space that the Senoia Downtown Development Authority leases out.

The Senoia Police Department and city court moved several years ago to the new municipal court facility on Howard Road. The library moved in 2012 to the long-awaited new location on Pylant Street, and the former library building is now a barbecue restaurant.

Because court and city council meetings no longer had to be held at city hall, the city was able to make tremendous changes to the building. "What we did was create a very welcoming and warm public space in the lobby, that we feel the citizens of Senoia deserve," said City Manager Richard Ferry. "That public space is very nice looking," Ferry said. And the work space "is much more practical," he said. The offices are bigger and there are now two conference rooms.

There are also public restrooms. Previously, there were two unisex restrooms in city hall — one off the conference room and one in the mayor's office. They weren't very practical for members of the public. Now there is both a men's and women's restroom, and they can be accessed from the side door of city hall — meaning they can be open during events downtown.

"So now downtown has public bathrooms that are open," Ferry said. "That works out very well."

"We've gotten quite a few comments in favor of not only the lobby but also the restrooms," Ferry said.

Senoia's time in the spotlight shows no sign of ending.

"We're looking forward to another summer of 'The Walking Dead,'" Ferry said. It's already been confirmed that portions of season four will be filmed in Senoia; whether filming will be as intense as it was last year isn't clear yet. Senoia stands in for the walled and zombie free town of Woodbury, which is prominently featured in season three.

Because of the way the town's new development was designed, businesses can still operate during the filming, for the most part. Shop windows are boarded up in Woodbury, and customers can use the back entrances to the buildings to come and go without bothering film crews.

The film industry — especially "The Walking Dead," has brought economic development to Senoia but it also creates challenges.

"That comes with problems that have to be resolved," Ferry said. "We have to now make decisions about adding parking in downtown." Tigchelaar has created two small parking lots in downtown for the use of filming crews, and members of the public use them sometimes, but that's not enough.

Ferry said he remembers, several years ago, they were talking about parking during a planning commission meeting. "One of the council members said 'wouldn't that be a great problem to have?" And now they do.

This past Thanksgiving, city employees enjoyed a long four-day weekend. "We never really had to worry too much about that day, a lot of shops weren't open, people just weren't coming in" to town, Ferry said. But on this Black Friday, the weather was warm and people poured into Senoia. "We had so many people in town that our trash cans overflowed and we weren't prepared for emptying them" over the holiday weekend, Ferry said.

Right now, the city is beginning the planning process for the new parking options.

"We want to see what can be the logical choice, when we look at where the development is going to occur."

Tigchelaar and Lombardi's Historic Development Ventures (now Senoia Enterprises) built a large parking lot off Seavy Street several years ago. It's built with permeable pavers that grass can grow through, and is almost park like in appearance.

"We think, no matter what, we're going to have to make" the city's new parking lot look like the Seavy Street lot, Ferry said. "If we throw down asphalt and a dentition pond, I think a lot of people will be upset."

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