Editorial: Historic depot should be downtown Dalton's crown jewel, not its eyesore

For decades across two centuries, the Western & Atlantic depot in downtown bustled with activity as passengers shuffled on and off trains there.

Railroad travel waned in popularity in the mid-1900s as cars and planes worked themselves into American culture as a quicker, more efficient means to move around the country. That change in travel caused the depot to close to passenger trains.

In 1978, the city of Dalton purchased the structure that was originally built in 1852 by the Western & Atlantic Railroad. The depot was converted into a restaurant and bar in the early 1990s and, like the passenger depot years before, teemed with activity. That eatery — the Dalton Depot & Trackside Tavern — closed in November 2015.

Now, the historic depot sits empty gathering cobwebs. With each passing day it inches closer to being downtown Dalton's eyesore, not downtown Dalton's crown jewel.

The Dalton City Council wants to sell the depot. Earlier this year, council members asked the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation to market it to potential buyers and ensure that it is preserved as a historic building. The city put the building up for bid. Earlier this month, potential buyers toured the building.

Only one company, Dalton-based Barrett Properties, submitted a bid. Barrett Properties wants to restore the depot to its "glory days" as a restaurant and bar. According to the company's proposal, the renovated depot would house two distinct businesses — a restaurant in the northern section and a bar in the southern section. The grand opening is listed as Dec. 31, 2020.

The company bid $300,000 to purchase the building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

City officials are mulling the proposal and have forwarded the proposal to the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation for their review and consultation. City Administrator Jason Parker told this newspaper he could have a recommendation for City Council members at their Monday meeting.

We are certainly pleased that a local company sees the potential of the depot. Adding to our optimism is Barrett Properties' track record of investing in Dalton and its downtown. Barrett Properties owns several buildings downtown, including the former Belk building at 307 S. Hamilton St., which it is developing into apartments, and the Landmark Building, which now houses the Dalton Innovation Accelerator, the city's first business incubator.

Unfortunately, the cash-strapped City Council lacks the money necessary to properly restore the depot to its former glory. The depot has remained unoccupied going on three years in November. We fear that without some action from the City Council — whether by selling the depot or by investing money to protect it — the neglected building will suffer the same fate of many historic structures that no longer exist in our city.

That's why we believe the City Council should seriously consider Barrett Properties' proposal. Council members, who lack the knowledge of preserving historic structures, should solicit advice from historic groups and professionals at home and across the state. Members of the Whitfield-County Historical Society, the city's Historic Preservation Commission, the state Historic Preservation Division and the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation should all have representatives at the table. The City Council should also seek input from Dalton residents, since we own the depot.

Selling the depot would be a boon to the city's bottom line. Selling the depot to the right developer would be a boon to downtown, and the city overall.

We hope our City Council makes the right, informed decision.

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