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Historic building turned eyesore comes down
City judge ordered it, but owner agrees it was time
An excavating crew works on demolition of the old Midtown Market building on East Main Street Friday. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

None too soon for officials at Statesboro City Hall, property owner Garland Nessmith is tearing down the century-old warehouse-type building on East Main Street at its intersection with Savannah Avenue.

A contractor he hired began using an excavator to break down the brick walls of the front section Monday. The building, which may originally have been an ice house, housed a wholesale grocery business in the mid-20th century and eventually became a flea market called Midtown Market.

Sitting vacant for almost two decades, the building could be seen from City Hall, where its decaying condition drew comments at some council meetings the past few years. After Hurricane Irma scattered bits of the roof downtown in September, City Code Enforcement Officer Mike Chappel issued Nessmith a nuisance citation dated Oct. 9, and after a Dec. 14 hearing, Municipal Court Judge Keith Barber found that the building presented a nuisance which he ordered Nessmith to abate by “demo and removal,” said City Attorney I. Cain Smith.

But Nessmith had applied for a demolition permit from the city Sept. 27, before the citation and court process, and city records show the permit was issued Oct. 9, the same date the citation was written.

“I’d already got a demolition permit to take it down before I ever got a citation,” he noted in a phone interview Thursday.

In the interview he agreed with the city’s reasons for wanting the building down:  that it was beyond repair, an eyesore and presented a hazard.

“It was an eyesore. I’d be the first to admit it,” Nessmith said. “I had been trying for 18 years to find somebody to come tear it down and save all the materials. The old heart pine lumber in it was over a hundred years old, and of course you had a tremendous amount of brick and a lot of metal that somebody could have salvaged, but nobody wanted to do it.”

A sign that remained on the property last week also indicated a past effort Nessmith made to sell the building and grounds through a real estate agency. That was for one year, at least four or five years ago.

“I got not a single offer,” he said.


Ice and groceries

The Bulloch County Board of Tax Assessors database gives the building’s area as 18,901 square feet and 1900 as the “actual year built,” but dates of old buildings are sometimes estimates.

People from an earlier generation told Nessmith that the building, or at least the front part made of bricks, started out as an ice house. As evidence of this, he notes that it had a basement where vegetables, fruit and possibly meat could be kept cool.

Wood-framed warehousing covered with sheet metal was added behind the masonry structure. Nessmith worked in the complex in the early 1960s when it was the Alfred Dorman Wholesale Grocery warehouse. Company founder Dorman, who also owned grocery businesses in several other southeast Georgia towns, had been mayor of Statesboro and president of the U.S. Wholesale Grocers Association before his death in a car crash in 1955.

Back in the 1890s before the ice house was built, the land was the site of a livery stable and blacksmith shop, Nessmith has heard over the years. The huge quantity of horseshoes found when added two more warehouses on the neighboring tract years ago convinced him.

The final sign left painted on the brick front wall was for the Midtown Market, which once included a seafood market and restaurant, or so the paint said.


Irma’s effect

Tropical Storm Irma, previously a monster hurricane but weakened, blew through Georgia last Sept. 11. Some roofing from Nessmith’s building, bits of sheet metal with tarpaper attached, wound up in other places downtown, said City Councilman Phil Boyum.

Boyum found some of the material himself, but there wasn’t a lot of it, he said.

"Fortunately the storm wasn't very powerful, and not a whole lot of the roof blew off,” Boyum said. “However, had that storm been more direct, had it been more powerful, there would have been a serious issue with parts of that building being blown around downtown."

That, he said, is “why code enforcement finally cited the building when they did.”

Boyum also said he had talked to people 10 or 12 years ago, when the building was in better shape, about “repurposing it for something to benefit downtown, maybe a location for a farmer’s market.” The Downtown Statesboro Development Authority until recently was in negotiations with Nessmith for the property, and Boyum said the city hadn’t acted sooner because of that.

He said he thinks the building’s removal is a positive step for Nessmith as well as the city.

“I've got to imagine it's cheaper to tear it down than it is to deal with a lawsuit from somebody getting injured,” Boyum said.

The Sept. 19 Statesboro City Council minutes state that Boyum suggested then the city “start the condemnation process” on the property if there had been no resolution with Nessmith. He applied for the demolition permit eight days later.


Not condemnation

What the city actually did was start a nuisance abatement action under its own ordinances.

“The point for the city was never to condemn or take possession of the property,” Smith, the city attorney, said this week. “That's not what we want at all."

But the building, he said, presented a danger to the public, and not just because of what storms might do.

“The condition of the building alone made it a dangerous situation, and we'd also had reports of children playing in there, and we had to do something about it,” Smith said.

Nessmith also called the building “hazardous” and said he “couldn’t keep people out of it.”

A follow-up hearing had been slated for Thursday. The trail of city court documents concluded with an email from Smith acknowledging that Nessmith was in compliance but stating that Smith would move for a new hearing if the demolition and removal stopped or significantly slowed down.


DSDA’s role

"We're glad that Garland's taking the initiative to tear it down,” said Allen Muldrew, executive director of the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority. “We appreciate him doing it. It's an area that needed cleaning up, and it's one of things that can help take our community forward in a positive way."

He and Nessmith both acknowledged they had been in discussion about the DSDA doing something with the property. Nessmith said the latest negotiation continued off and on for more than a year and concluded just before he received the citation.

“We couldn’t get our numbers together,” he said.

"We were just looking at some ways to partnership and just really weren't able to come to something that worked best for everybody,” was the way Muldrew put it. “He was very cordial. He listened to everything we said.”

When the work is done, Nessmith will be the owner of a vacant lot, still on a corner downtown in sight of City Hall.

"We're glad he tore it down, and if the opportunity arises, maybe in the future we can revisit some of our conversations," Muldrew said.


Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.



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