Sunday May 3rd, 2015 8:07PM

Clarkesville recovery 'a top priority' for state agencies

By Rob Moore Reporter
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CLARKESVILLE - Several state officials visited Clarkesville Monday morning to discuss ways their agencies might be able to help with fire recovery in the downtown area.

Six businesses, five property owners and more than 50 employees were impacted when a fire that started at and destroyed Sweet Breads restaurant spread to the back of the east side of the Clarkesville Square shortly after 11 p.m. Wednesday.

"We have a multitude of servers displaced at this point from several of our biggest restaurants in town," said Clarkesville City Councilwoman Leigh Johnston.

"This is a top priority with our agency - across several agencies," said Billy Peppers, special assistant in the Community Development Division at the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.

In addition to several representatives from DCA, Tammy Caudell, regional project manager for the Georgia Department of Economic Development, also actively participated in the meeting.

Clarkesville Main Street Manager Mary Beth Horton, who facilitated Monday's meeting, is working with DCA officials to set up a rebuilding resource meeting that includes state and local resources for building owners and for employers. That event will be held sometime next week so those affected by the fire can find out the types of assistance that may be available to them.

"Our business owners and property owners are totally overwhelmed right now," Johnston said.

Horton and Johnston met with some of those affected Monday afternoon to discuss specific needs and questions.

Peppers said it is important that the city reaffirm that the property owners and business owners are able to come back and want to come back in the affected spaces.

"What you build back is not going to be historic," Peppers reminded city officials.

Since new buildings must meet modern building codes, DCA officials said the city might want to waive any of its local codes that go over and above the state minimum codes, if there are any that are more stringent.

"You could create an enterprise zone to waive some ordinances to get the building back to where it would have been," Peppers said. "And you possibly could abate or waive ad valorem taxes for a period of time so that it's not a financial impact on the property owners."

Johnston said the city definitely doesn't want to sound insensitive, but noted "what saved that whole left side of the Square is a building code from the 1800s."

Johnston was referring to the fire walls that contained the fire to the Edward Jones, Soque River Watershed Association and Parker Place Antiques building.

Peppers said minimum building codes would remain in place under a waiver situation, but modern ordinances such as design requirements might be relaxed.

Following Monday's meeting at city hall, DCA and city officials walked around the Clarkesville Square to view the damage. They were joined by Danny Lewis, executive director of the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission.

Rep. Dan Gasaway, Rep. Terry Rogers and Sen. John Wilkinson all toured the downtown area at various times Thursday, offering whatever assistance they could.
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