MARY ANN ANDERSON
Solving the mystery of how to draw people and businesses to downtown Hazlehurst after its heyday, one that seems to have peaked in the 1990s, has proven elusive.
Until now, that is. That quandary may well be answered by a new generation of local visionaries who are seeking to preserve the old architecture of our town while at the same time creating a cultural mecca of chic boutiques, bistros, professional office space, and more.
In the past few months, Rory and Joel Chaney have set about kickstarting Hazlehurst Main Street, one of the cogs in the wheel of the Georgia Main Street program that began in 1980. At the time, nearly four decades past, it was one of the original pilot state coordinating programs of the National Main Street initiative launched by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The Chaneys are all about historic preservation. The couple became involved in Hazlehurst Main Street with the stroke of a pen when they purchased the old Collins Loan building that was most recently the home of Lane Sayles’ sculpting and stained-glass studio.
“It came about by accident, really,” says Rory. “I love old buildings, and I always have. I love anything to do with history and renovation.”
She and Joel looked at one downtown building to buy and renovate, and as they walked around Hazlehurst, an idea began to form.
“That afternoon I came home and had a vision of what could be possible,” she says. “Unfortunately, that building didn’t work out.”
The couple had almost given up on finding another suitable property to renovate when the Collins Loan property came up for sale after Lane Sayles unexpectedly passed away. The building, at the very visible, well-traveled corner of Tallahassee and Latimer streets, fit all their criteria for a downtown property. It was old, built in 1905, and historic in that it housed myriad offices over the years including the loan company, a bank, and Sammy Sayle’s law office, among other small businesses.
“It is a good focal point in town,” Rory points out. “I told Joel that we had just bought a building for about the cost of a used car.”
In researching the building, the Chaneys also discovered its unusual background dating to when it was owned by Marilyn Collins Sayles, Sammy’s wife and Lane’s mother.
“Mrs. Sayles owned a lot of property,” Rory says. “Usually it’s the husband, the men, who own the property, but Mrs. Sayles had property that she owned in her own name. She was a forward thinker.”
After signing on the dotted line for their new endeavor, the idea of Hazlehurst Main Street was becoming more of a reality than just a passing thought. First and foremost, the Chaneys, both small town folks – he from Hazlehurst and she from Douglas – realized early on that the downtown area of places like Hazlehurst has always been important, as they are the focal point or the heartbeat of a community. Rory cites the historic districts of Dublin and Douglas as examples of cities that have been renewed and revived over the past few years from decaying and crumbling storefronts to cozy downtowns filled with life.
The Chaneys want to see the flow of businesses return to downtown Hazlehurst after many have ebbed away and left some storefronts empty and dark.
“When I talk about getting businesses downtown,” Rory begins, “I’m talking about attracting them with the appearance of the area and giving people a vision of what Hazlehurst could be like with forward-thinkers and some innovation.”
Part of the challenges that she and others who join her in these efforts face is getting the businesses and people to come to downtown to shop and eat.
She is quick to point out that she is not trying to do the job of the Joint Development Authority, now headed by Andrea Dorminey Taylor, or the Chamber of Commerce with Sonya Miller at its helm, of attracting industry and manufacturing.
“That’s a whole different ballgame,” she says. “I want to do something that will help Hazlehurst as far as building the businesses that are here, attracting new small local businesses, and then promoting them locally and to other communities. Andrea and Sonya have been great in pointing me in the right direction.”
Rory also adds that Hazlehurst Mayor Bayne Stone has been instrumental in guiding her efforts.
“Whatever he can do to help us, he has done,” adds Rory. “And I’m working with and talking to other downtown business owners to help them get a vision and get onboard with renovating buildings. We have a lot of empty buildings, plus we don’t have a lot of old buildings left. And that’s just really sad.”
While Rory and Joel are still in the process of renovating the Collins Loan property – a portion of it will be turned into an apartment – she also admires the look and feel of other old downtown properties, including the old Wilson Hardware building on Hinson Street.
“It’s a great place for downtown apartments,” she says, “but the roof is completely gone.”
And therein lies the critical issue with many of the downtown businesses. While they have what Rory called “beautiful old brick,” they are also fraught with problems including roofs and walls that have caved in.
Between the time she and Joel first bought Collins Loan and now, she has taken grant classes and is looking at taking some economic development classes in the coming months.
“I hope to be able to find a way to help people to renovate but who don’t have the money to do it,” she says, hoping that solutions will be available to repair the great structures like Wilson Hardware that were the building blocks of old Hazlehurst.
Rory also says the time is right for downtown to come alive again.
“It’s a matter of getting the right people together at the right time,” she says. “If we can get people together, and show them this vision, and they’re willing to work, it can happen. It’s going to take people working together, because one person can’t do it all.”
Part of her inspiration has come from Joann Lewis of Douglas, who among her other leadership roles, was instrumental in Main Street Douglas. Lewis told her that revitalizing a downtown can be “amazing” at enticing industry and people to move to a town.
“What I’m trying to accomplish is fun, great, and something different,” Rory says. “And what really matters, too, is that it can attract industry. I hope this lends to that a little bit.”
Both Rory and Joel want to see Hazlehurst thrive, which is why they are taking such a tremendous leap of faith with their time, energy, and money.
“I want young people to have something to interest them, a sense of community,” she says before adding, “There’s been a lot of excitement and interest in what we’re trying to do. I think it motivates other people. It takes one person to light the match, that spark, to get it going.”
Firm plans are being made for an organizational meeting of those who are interested in seeing grand plans for a better hometown come to fruition.
“I want to get everyone together and get people’s ideas of what they want to see and how they want to participate,” she says.
She says that anyone who wants to be a part of gearing up downtown Hazlehurst to become the comeback kid can contact her through Facebook Messenger on the Hazlehurst Main Street Facebook page, call her at 912-592-4239, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As Rory and Joel finish renovating Collins Loan, their pet project that became the catalyst for Hazlehurst Main Street, she is encouraged by even the smallest of things.
“I love to see lights at night in downtown,” she says. “It means there’s life going on.”