Saturday February 6th, 2016 10:41AM

Cornelia DDA approves loan for downtown restaurant

By Rob Moore Reporter
CORNELIA - Natalie Jane's Tavern on the Square, displaced by a March 5 fire that heavily damaged one section of the Clarkesville Square, soon will have a new home in downtown Cornelia.

At a called meeting Wednesday morning, the Cornelia Downtown Development Authority voted to provide a loan of up to $300,000 to business owner Natalie Heisley for purchase of the former Gusben's Downtown building at 137 Hodges St., and for improvements to the facility.

"Our job in the DDA is to provide financial tools in addition to what a Main Street progam does," said Cornelia DDA Chairman Brian Horton. "One of our objectives over the last three years was to bring a full-service restaurant to downtown."

Horton said DDA members recognize that restaurants get people out of their cars and onto the sidewalks, more of which is needed downtown.

"Basically the DDA is acting as the bank for Natalie Jane's to purchase the building," Horton said. "We're loaning her the money. She's buying the building. The building will be in her name. She'll be in charge of all the improvements and paying the bills and the taxes on it."

The DDA acting as the bank for Natalie Jane's rather than purchasing the property has benefits for the City of Cornelia.

"That keeps the property on the tax digest and makes her the owner and not us," Horton said. "Although we do have title, we will take a security deed on the property so that if anything ever happened ... we would have the ability to foreclose and take possession of the building."

An appraisal of the former Gusben's building, performed for the DDA, came in at $220,000, not including equipment, furniture and fixtures.

Comparables in the appraisal included The Attic in Clarkesville and 109 Bradford Street in Gainesville.

Natalie Jane's plans to renovate the downstairs level of the former Gusben's to house the bar, and to add patio-style seating adjacent to Appletree Alley.

Up to $75,000 of the total loan, set aside for improvements to the building and property, will be held in an escrow account, with the contractor making draw requests.

The DDA sought bids for the $300,000 loan from banks, with Community Bank & Trust coming in as low bidder at 2.25 percent interest and no origination fee. Both United Community Bank and Verity Bank came in at higher interest rates and charged a loan origination fee in their bids.

The DDA will charge Heisley 4.5 percent interest on the loan.

Horton said Heisley has a detailed 46-page business plan that has been reviewed by DDA members - two of whom formerly owned and operated restaurants, and two of whom are in the banking industry.

"Obviously, having the option and the ability to support a business that had been here, had a five-year track record, and was known to the community was really the tipping point for us to take action," Horton said. "Had it been just a start-up or somebody that we weren't familiar with, we probably would not have been as interested in doing it. But we knew the business, and all of us had been customers of the business, so we felt like in some ways we were helping to save a local Habersham County business - to help their employees, to put them back to work. It our opinion, it really was a win-win for everybody."

Cornelia City Manager Donald Anderson, an ex-officio member of the DDA, said he is happy to see the progress made to get Natalie Jane's into the city's downtown.

"This is great - it's what the DDA is for," Anderson said. "Thank y'all for taking the initiative to actually do something and be a downtown development authority instead of just a board that helps put on events. I think this is going to be a great shot in the arm for downtown Cornelia."

Horton and other DDA members are optimistic the addition of a restaurant that also serves alcohol will help revive the downtown area.

"We have to take calculated risks," Horton said. "Up to this point we've taken no risks, because there hasn't been really the opportunity to do it."
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