Gwinnett Daily Post
Rita Bowens remembers the excitement of the arrival of Winn-Dixie more than three decades ago because as a Duluth native, it meant she and her family no longer had to drive to Doraville or beyond for shopping.
Her mother loved Parsons, the original general store shopping destination in Duluth that “had everything.”
But Bowens, 61, admitted she was a bit melancholy last week as she stood at the corner of Buford Highway and Duluth Highway and watched heavy excavator construction equipment demolish the vacant building at Proctor Square.
“It is part of my history, my parents are no longer living so representing them and knowing that for them to be able to see the change,” Bowens said. “I see the change for them. … I think it’s a good change for the city because change is everywhere. You can’t stay stagnant.”
Born and raised in Duluth, Bowens remembers the Proctor Square heyday in the 1970s and ’80s and when Gwinnett Place Mall opened and pulled customers from the Winn-Dixie, a five and dime store called Elmore’s and Western Auto.
While the property had stores as recently as a few years ago, questions about the property have buzzed around the city for the last decade, and were one of the first things asked of Mayor Nancy Harris when she began to campaign 10 years ago.
Once home to the Rexall Grill before it moved across the street, Proctor Square had 43 years of retail service before a developer from Dunwoody, Residential Group, acquired Proctor Square along with Duluth Corners, Georgia Cremation, and FM Appliance.
The expected $64 million project across eight acres will become a 375 unit rental complex with 11 retail and office store fronts with connected living space above and two corner restaurant sites. The development will feature a wrapped parking deck accessible to the public on the first two levels, tree-lined boulevard with parallel parking, sidewalks and public art sites.
It’s expected to take two years to finish.
“The whole design of the building is kind of an early industrial design,” developer Kurt Alexander said. “It kind of ties back into the railroad, early city of Duluth, and if you look at a lot of the architecture, signage, buildings in place, we’re pulling off of those ideas and bringing it into our project. It is a new property, but it does reach back to the history of Duluth and what’s existing now.”
He added that it’s an urban project in a suburban location that offers urban amenities with restaurants and outdoor space.
As she spoke to a gathered crowd in the parking lot, Harris said she expects this to be a catalyst for further development. The brick, wrought iron and public art is also designed to mix old and new, like the remade downtown area that has a late 1800 design.
“Yes, we’re getting rid of something really old, but it had no use,” said Harris, a former Winn-Dixie cashier. “… We feel like by doing this, that place is going to get better, and that place is going to get better, and the place down the road is going to get better. We just feel like it’s really going to be a trigger for economic growth on Buford Highway.”
Councilman Billy Jones remembers the property as a young boy after it first constructed in the late 1960s on one of the highest points in Duluth. It was the first true shopping center outside of Parsons.
When Jones was a young teenager, he worked at Western Auto, and that helped him buy his first car at the bottom of the hill, a 1973 Chevrolet Nova.
“I remember working in this store looking out the window going, ‘I’m going to buy that car one day,’” Jones said. “It sat there a long time — it seemed like it took me a year to get my down payment.”
Jones’ parents had a television sales and service business and a laundromat at one end of the property, and between his job and after-school time with his father, Jones said he “hung out here a lot.”
Jones’ grandmother lived just behind the property, and because of his family ties, he said history is very important and recalled a one-time city motto: having pride in old and new.
“On the flip side, you’ve got to move ahead with some things,” he said. “There’s got to be a mix. … Some things have to come down for advancing, but there’s a mix, a fine balance.”