Almost every town has a building or house like it. Maybe there’s a ghost story or two attached to it. Perhaps it’s an eyesore. In Bainbridge, Ga., the Bon Air Hotel was one of those buildings. An ailing physical reminder of the past. However, when demolition threatened to destroy the historic downtown landmark, Bainbridge’s Main Street/Tourism director, local activist Mary Ann Griffin and other community leaders joined forces with The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation to save the building. Not only was the building saved, but its new owner has plans to rehabilitate the building and turn it into a profitable venture. This is an extraordinary story of town pride and teamwork.
Bon Air Hotel, 2001
"Without the cooperation of numerous people and organizations, including Georgia’s Department of Community Affairs, Main Street Director Nell Worsham and City Manager Charles Tyson, this collaboration to save a very significant part of Bainbridge’s business district could not have occurred," says Gregory Paxton, Georgia Trust president and CEO. "Everyone put their heads together to make things work, and everyone benefits by having the Bon Air Hotel once again become a vital part of Bainbridge."
Bainbridge is one of 105 Main Street cities in Georgia and one of 1,000 nationwide. The program is administered in Georgia by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. The National Main Street program uses a four-point approach to downtown revitalization: community organization, design, promotion and economic restructuring. To encourage the revitalization of Georgia Main Street cities and downtowns, Tthe Georgia Trust provides design and technical assistance to owners of historic commercial buildings in Main Street communities. Since 1982, the program has helped more than 2,000 owners rehabilitate historic downtown properties.
Once heralded as a "delightful place to sojourn at any season of the year," over the years the Bon Air Hotel had deteriorated into an underused three-story building with a leaking roof. Since the 39,000-square-foot building occupies almost an entire block of the town square, to some it looked like a waste of valuable space—parking space, that is. Tearing down the Bon Air for a parking lot seemed to be the simplest solution to the problem.
A historic photo of the Bon Air Hotel
Griffin asked the Georgia Trust to facilitate finding a preservation-minded buyer who would restore the Bon Air Hotel as a functioning contributor to the town’s economy, and owner Reuben Reynolds generously offered to donate the building. Through its Revolving Fund program, The Georgia Trust, with the help of preservation planner Paul Forgey of the Southwest Georgia Regional Development Center, began discussions with Hal Carter, a developer from Sylvester, Ga. On July 13, 1999, Carter purchased the Bon Air.
Carter has restored several loft apartments in Sylvester, as well as a hotel similar to the one in Bainbridge. He plans to utilize all floors of the Bon Air effectively. His plans include retail space on the first floor, a restaurant, lounge and office space on the second floor and loft apartments on the third floor. "I think the hotel will be a catalyst for downtown revitalization," Carter says. "When you bring people back to live downtown, they stay downtown and they shop downtown." Carter praised the city of Bainbridge for its cooperation and receptiveness to his ideas. He says the city is so committed to the project, it is applying for a grant to replace the graceful balconies that once lined the front of the building.
According to Frank White, Georgia Trust revolving fund director, the fund enables owners of endangered historic properties to connect with buyers who will rehabilitate their properties. This year alone, the fund has rescued four historically significant homes from demolition.
"As the first commercial building to be sold through the Trust’s revolving fund, the Bon Air is an exception, since the fund is designed to ‘revolve’ historic homes," Paxton says. "However, this whole endeavor is a great example of how the Georgia Trust works with communities to help them form a vision for possible re-use of their historic properties."
The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation is the nation’s largest statewide nonprofit preservation organization with nearly 9,000 members. The Georgia Trust’s mission is to promote an appreciation of Georgia’s diverse historic resources and provide for their protection and use to preserve, enhance and revitalize Georgia’s communities.
Do you know of an endangered historic property in your town? The Georgia Trust may be able to help. Contact Kate Ryan at 404-885-7817.