Jul 28, 2014
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Demolition by Neglect

How Douglasville is losing its most valuable historical asset.

This past week I performed a little experiment. I threw the word “history” out to various people–friends, waitresses, store clerks, even a couple of surprised strangers–and asked them to tell me what immediately popped into their minds.

Various words were thrown back to me–events, dates, maps, wars, battles–and the list goes on.

None of the responses really surprised me, but there are other words to parallel with the word history. Words like preservation, remember, and trust come to mind and unfortunately, the words failure, greed, demolish, surrender, neglect, and ignore are on the flipside as I continue examining the winding path of history our cotton mill in Douglasville has taken.

I shared the story last week regarding how Douglasville ended up with the cotton mill and how important the mill was to our economic health over most of the last century.  You can see my column from last week .

Now I want to share the rest of the story regarding how history can be neglected and forgotten by the very people we trust to preserve it. Sometimes in their attempts to improve the lives of citizens in the here and now they actually betray the trust handed to them by citizens who took their leave a long time ago. They also end up cheating future generations regarding our historical record. 

History can also be used by folks who are just looking for easy outs in business in order to leverage property or satisfy some misguided need to collect historic properties, and then allow them to die a slow death of neglect for some strange reason I simply cannot fathom. 

It’s a shame that a unique and proud cotton mill with such a rich history ended up as a sad and lonely piece of Douglasville history slated to be sold on the courthouse steps in just a few days. 

Construction for the mill began in 1897 and over the years mill housing was built for employees. The mill village also included a company store, athletic fields and churches. In 1934, the mill was involved in the Textile Worker's Strike of 1934, the largest labor strike in the history of the United States, with over 44,000 mill workers across Georgia on strike regarding various issues of discrimination and evictions. In 1953, sources indicate the cotton mill was Douglasville’s largest employer with 3,000 workers or one-fourth of the county’s population.

It was during the late 1990s that the Douglasville Historic Preservation Commission and Douglasville City government became involved with the cotton mill property due to a proposed widening project for Bankhead Highway that is still on hold to this day.  In case you aren’t aware when the Georgia Department of Transportation or GDOT wants to make any changes regarding our roads they have to conduct various studies including one that determines how any historic sites in the proposed area will be impacted by the road changes.  

At first all GDOT did was a quick assessment referred to in a later document as a “windshield survey” meaning they didn’t even get out of the car. An article published in the Cultural Resource Management magazine presented by the National Parks Service indicates, “Local historians were unaware of the patented design for mills in …Douglasville, Georgia," and since the windows had been bricked in “the mill in Douglasville was deceptive in appearance causing it to be overlooked [initially] in a [GDOT} survey of historic resources.”

On November 13, 1997, the United States Department of the Interior issued a letter to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Historic Preservation Division noting GDOT had not designated the cotton mill as historic and sited their own research DID indicate the structure had historic value even though it had been “altered on the exterior." The letter further stated, “This mill IS certainly worthy of
additional examinations.”

Finally, on January 30, 1998 officials with GDOT, the City of Douglasville, as well as officials from the Georgia Historic Preservation Division met and all were in agreement the cotton mill site was eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion C for its distinctive method of construction.

Now, here is where I need to make a clarification. The agreement between all of the government entities regarding historic status does not mean the property was automatically protected.  Anyone can fill out the paperwork and nominate a site for National Register status but the owner of the property can turn it down.  

Yes, it can’t be forgotten that during all of the to and fro between all of the governmental agencies and officials the mill property was privately owned. The wrangling over historical status merely had to do with the GDOT project and the hoops they are required to jump through when trying to get a project off the ground. During the initial wrangling over historic status the mill property was owned by Kenneth Farmer and then in August, 1999 the property was transferred to Fellowship Christian Center, Inc.

If the Bankhead widening project had happened the way it was initially proposed the outside wall of the mill would have had to be removed if not the entire structure, so of course the situation had to be fully examined. The widening project could have been very beneficial to the property owner as a selling point, but historical status could hinder GDOT with their plans as they were.

Eight months prior to Fellowship Christian taking over the property the Douglasville Historic Preservation Commission prepared a document titled “Report for Nomination: Proposal for Historic Designation Georgia Western Cotton Mill containing the information noted above. In fact, I’ve been told the cotton mill was one of the first properties the commission identified formally as a historic site.

Sadly though, I have been advised the City Council pressed the commission to remove the listing a couple of years ago after being convinced by a developer that the historic designation limited development options. Rather than take steps to prevent deterioration and market the property as an asset, the mayor and council for all intents and purposes promoted its demise.  

An undated letter from the City of Douglasville to the Douglasville Historic Preservation Commission  requests the commission to remove the cotton mill property from the local historic registry. The letter advises “the buildings are in a state of disrepair and it is unlikely they can be returned to a state of historic significance”.  

I have a problem with that. Historical significance does NOT disappear simply because a site is not in pristine condition.

The letter goes on to state, "the buildings are unsafe to occupy and are a hazard to the community. We need to pursue condemnation procedures and are unable to do so due to its historic affiliation."

First, it bothers me that the letter is not dated. Second, it bothers me that if condemnation was on the city’s mind why has the property not been condemned? It seems to me the “historical status” of the property was the hindrance.

Inman Park Properties took ownership of the mill property over in 2001, and here is where the ride gets even bumpier. 

Let me introduce you to Jeff Notrica, the person at the helm of Inman Park Properties, hereafter referred to as IPP.  Do a quick look across the web and you can quickly see several adjectives that describe Notrica-businessman, property developer, landlord, deadbeat, slumlord, scrum of the earth, innkeeper, crook, and hoarder. 

Under the guise of IPP and various other LLC businesses Notrica spent the 1990s and the first few years of the last decade buying up property after property in Atlanta, Birmingham, and Savannah.  

As I continued with my research I noticed a pattern. The majority of the properties IPP acquired were interesting or significant in some way.  IPP acquired the properties and generally did nothing to improve them even if they had tenants. Apparently IPP charged high rents, but the buildings were in poor shape and remained that way so they could be tax write-offs.  In some cases IPP even told prospective tenants THEY had to pay for property upgrades. Then of course, IPP would take out mortgages on each property for up to four times the actual value of the property. The borrowed money would fund the purchase of more properties, and the process would begin anew.

For example, IPP bought the Gordon School property in the East Atlanta Village for $200,000 and then placed more than $4 million in debt against it. Improvements? No, at one point there were trees growing on the second floor of the structure.

There was also a small parking lot in IPP’s portfolio bought for $127,000, but was quickly mortgaged for $600,000. Guess there was yet another historic property for IPP to snap up.

The whole business model (if you really want to call it that) harkens to one of those late night infomercials where the announcer repeatedly tells you, “Yes! You too can get rich quick in real estate!”

Even our own cotton mill property was purchased by IPP for $195,000 in 2001. In November, 2004 a mortgage was issued from Omni Bank (it has since been assigned to another company) for $1.2 million dollars. Was the money used to improve the mill property? No. You can take a look at my pictures and determine for yourself.

Of course during the time IPP has owned the cotton mill property the property taxes have run behind. The last delinquency is for 2008, 2009, and 2010 leading to a sheriff’s sale.

The now defunct website for IPP stated the company motto was “Preserving the future by saving the past."

Really?

Sad.

This link and this link discuss IPP’s holdings in the East Atlanta Village explaining how many of them were in a state of neglect including huge piles of garbage and tires. This article details IPP’s ownership of the Kreigshaber House which you might recognize by the name Wrecking Bar (now saved by someone else and open), and The Clermont (the lounge is still open), as well as other very historic Atlanta properties. 

This Birmingham News article from 2009 details how IPP began buying up historical properties in Birmingham tying up as much as $10 million with at least 11 properties that were allowed to decay. 

More information regarding IPP’s tax delinquencies and claims to have invested millions of dollars to improve his holdings can be found  here, here and here.

Of course foreclosures began to plague IPP around 2008 and 2009, and I would imagine they are continuing to this day.  While the current economic downturn did hurt Nortica and IPP, his past history clearly shows today's commercial real estate climate is not the cause of what can only be termed "a mess."

And through this whole thing one has to wonder where the cities and counties are? Why are they not enforcing their regulations and accountability regarding code enforcement? What about the tax delinquencies?

Yes, there are several reasons why I’d like to kick Notrica but in an attempt to be fair I would like to mention that at one point he was appointed to the board of The Atlanta Preservation Center.  It would seem, however, it was a move by the group’s leader just to keep IPP/Notrica close, and it was a very controversial issue among group members.  

In 2003, the preservation group placed the Trust Company Bank at Monroe Drive and Fire Station No. 11 on the “Most Endangered Historic Places” list. Both were owned by IPP/Notrica and magically
the two historic spots were turned around earning Notrica awards and accolades here and here. This link also discusses a success with properties in Little Five Points where Front Page News and Tiuana Garage are located.  

And today? Notrica lives in  Savannah where he promotes himself as an innkeeper at the  Dresser Palmer House. The website advises, "Don't be surprised to see him checking you in when you arrive or fixing drinks at the evening social."  The bio only mentions he owned a small inn in Atlanta. There isn't a single word about his status as a land developer. While I do enjoy historic inns somehow I don't see myself ever allowing Notrica to pour me a drink.

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