Officials celebrate Dannenberg construction

The public-private partnership that will transform the historic Dannenberg Building into as many as 72 loft-style apartments and retail space downtown was celebrated Tuesday as Macon’s “first major renovation project since the Great Recession.”

Developers were set to rehab the Dannenberg, once one of the Southeast’s largest department stores, before 2008, but the banking crisis derailed those plans. However, local officials got creative and put together a package of loans from bonds and a disaster grant in an effort led by NewTown Macon and joined by Macon, Bibb County, the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority and the Development Authority of Bibb County.

“This coming together is the real cause for celebration,” Mercer President Bill Underwood, chairman of the NewTown Macon board of directors, said Tuesday at a gathering on Poplar Street near the Dannenberg.

Gene Dunwody Sr., one of the developers, said the project has been a long time coming. He noted that two of his partners in the current development, Tony Long and Dunwody’s son, Gene Dunwody Jr., first bought the property at Third and Poplar streets in 1991 but sold it to another interested developer. The Dunwodys, Long and Ron Conners bought the property in 2006 and at one point had financing lined up.

“Then we had the economic collapse and it didn’t happen,” Dunwody Sr. said. “With persistence, stubbornness and unrealistic expectations, we hung on.”

The project is expected to be completed in 12 months, he said, and apartments could begin being leased by the end of this year.

Most of the apartments will be studio or one-bedroom, but there will be two- and three-bedroom units, he said. They will range from 600 square feet to 1,340 square feet.

The Dannenberg has been called the “keystone project” of NewTown’s “Phase III” of its revitalization plans, which will focus on a block-by-block approach to transform targeted areas downtown. Part of the plan is to add 125 new apartments downtown over the next five years, and NewTown partnered with the Development Authority of Bibb County to issue $5 million in bonds, backed by the county, for a “gap equity fund” for this and other projects.

The Dannenberg developers got a $1.2 million loan from the fund.

“Developing and revitalizing downtown is everybody’s business,” said Development Authority Chairwoman Starr Purdue.

Developers also got a $1.5 million loan from a disaster grant that had been earmarked for renovating the Atlantic Cotton Mills before it was destroyed by fire in March 2011.

The city and county asked the state to consider the Dannenberg for the money, and it was reallocated.

Once the money used on the Dannenberg is repaid, the Urban Development Authority will use it for a revolving loan fund for capital investment.

Alex Morrison, the authority’s executive director, said the community’s enthusiasm for potential projects such as the Dannenberg encouraged him to stay in Macon after he graduated from Mercer University.

“The Dannenberg was looked at as the great potential for downtown Macon,” said Morrison.

Dannenberg’s store is believed to have first opened in about 1875 on Cotton Avenue. It moved to Third Street and expanded with a building on the corner of Third and Poplar streets in 1903.

Walter Dannenberg, who began working at his family’s business in 1939 while in high school, recalled after Tuesday’s ceremony how his grandfather added a fourth building to the complex in 1913, building it four stories tall “because he wanted it to be bigger.”

Dannenberg was proud that efforts to revitalize the property have moved forward.

“I’m glad to see it happen. It’s really going to help downtown,” he said.

Dannenberg said he had provided Long with the combination to a large safe on one of the upper floors. The item had caught the attention of builders during demolition, partly because of an old sticker warning that the safe was protected by “chemical warfare gas.”

The device was actually a tear gas container wired to trip when someone forced open the vault.

“It’s easy to disarm, and I think I did,” Dannenberg laughed.

Long walked over to the site later and told Dannenberg that he had opened the safe late Tuesday.

“No tear gas. I’m still here,” he joked.

Diana Blair of Blair’s Furniture, a few doors down on Third Street, said the Dannenberg project should give the area a real boost.

“I think it’s wonderful,” she said. “It’s such a wonderful thing for downtown.”

Blair’s has been in business for more than 30 years.

“Downtown is doing better than I’ve ever seen it do, now that Mercer and the Medical Center are involved,” Blair said. “Everybody’s excited about it.”

To contact writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.