When the City of Morrow staged a free Juneteenth celebration last month, featuring a spot-on Prince impersonator and fireworks show, an estimated 8,000 people showed up.
On July 1, the city’s Independence Day blowout, Freedomfest, saw about 5,000 attendees rocking to Departure, a Journey tribute band.
Those numbers were topped by a crowd of 10,000 that came out July 2 for the city’s International Night Market, a celebration of the area’s Asian and Hispanic cultures.
All of that took place at The District, or what used to be called Olde Towne Morrow. Located about 10 minutes south of Atlanta’s airport, it’s a collection of retail buildings, old former houses, and event spaces behind Southlake Mall and next to Interstate 75. It was dreamed up a decade and ½ ago by city leaders as the made-from-scratch, walkable downtown of shops and restaurants Morrow had always wanted—before it all fell apart.
All three events over the past month paint a stark contrast to what happened last summer at The District, when three historic structures went up in flames, dealing another tragic blow to a south metro commercial node meant to foster community and good times.
But as I-75 travelers may have seen recently, The District has been undergoing a noticeable spruce-up, with fresh exterior paint, façade upgrades, and large, lighted signage that practically shouts, “Rebranding efforts!” Coupled with a slate of tenant signings and high-dollar investments in the mall next door, The District’s changes have Morrow officials feeling optimistic that a new day could be dawning for this Clayton County city of 6,500 residents—and that Morrow’s unique city center could soon regain its gravitas.
“This whole place is about to be revitalized,” says Chandon Carter, Morrow’s newly installed city event director. “People are going to love it.”
A quick recap: The 19th-century-style Olde Towne was conceived around 2005 as a means to help boost the ailing, 1970s Southlake Mall next door and create a charming attraction that felt like the antithesis of a strip center. The city bought some woods behind the mall and poured more than $12 million into building its village, with eventual plans for new homes and apartments.
One aspect that immediately set the project apart: six homes from around Georgia the city bought for as little as $1 and transported to Morrow. They included bungalows, a fanciful Victorian, and a Greek revival-style antebellum mansion with 26 rooms hauled in from Macon. The houses were reborn as art galleries, shops, a seafood restaurant, an Irish pub, and more. For a few years, the new commercial hub thrived with strong patronage and special events such as free concerts and Christmas extravaganzas.
Then came the Great Recession—and the revelation that, in an attempt to open Olde Towne Morrow quickly, its creators at the city level had skirted environmental studies and failed to build any of the public structures in ways that met fire safety code, among other issues. The bulk of the district was shut down by the city in late 2010, and years of idleness and decay ensued.
And then, an inferno.
On the night of June 3 last year, three of those large imported houses—including that mansion from Macon, the 1846 Napier-Small house, which had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places—were destroyed by fire. Within a few days, police had arrested three teen boys and charged them with arson and burglary, among other alleged crimes.
Nonetheless, city leaders soon held a “unity breakfast” near the torched structures and vowed the rechristened "The District" would somehow bounce back.
On a steamy Friday afternoon earlier this month, following The District’s three summer celebrations, a stroll around the property showed clear signs of life, if few actual people.
A handsome wooden bridge linking to the mall area has been refurbished. Lighted “The District” signage was unmissable. A row of smaller retail spaces that had once resembled a zombie-ravaged, Old West Main Street bore fresh white paint and exterior upgrades. In those buildings, three tenants—Retro Alley record store, The Rustic Snowflake home decor, and VJ Design clothing boutique—have set up shop. Carter says a restaurant concept, Dukes BBQ & Grill, has signed on to claim one of the former houses soon.
Carter says the city’s official slogan, “Come To Morrow,” and the unofficial one, “We’ve got more amenities, less price,” is working. Proof of that, he says, is across the street, where the Clayton County Board of Education purchased the mall’s former Sears for $4.4 million and is building an 8,000-seat, multipurpose arena and convention center expected to cost $65 million.
Meanwhile, the City of Morrow bought the mall’s former JC Penny and created a banquet hall called The Morrow Center for weddings and other events (CeeLo Green performed there in February for Black History Month) in addition to a new 60,000-square-foot exhibition hall.
“It’s going to be the new place to come when you don’t want to go to the [Georgia World Congress Center], Gas South Arena, or even Cobb Energy Center,” says Carter. “It’s going to be the new new.”
As for The District, Carter says the future looks busy: a street festival and movie screenings for kids are on July's calendar, followed by Halloween events (possibly a haunted house, fittingly), a Christmas gala, and more.
In other words, The District plans to party like it’s 2009.
“The city is putting money into this. We’re replenishing the grass, putting more money into the houses, making sure they’re up to par and it’s safe for people to go in,” says Carter. “[Visitors] are happy, they love it, everybody’s meeting new people, and the city’s just having a great time.”
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