RINGGOLD, Ga. -- Some employers eager to rebuild in this tornado-troubled town say they're getting rebuffed by city and state officials who have thrown up hurdles in spite of a city campaign declaring Ringgold open for business.
A number of businesses in the city -- devastated by a twister that tore through Ringgold's business district on April 27 -- have put their building plans on hold, even as other businessmen near the end of their reconstruction efforts.
The pause is evident from the eviscerated buildings around town still waiting for the wrecking ball, and the bare concrete slabs that have been scraped clean and left to bake in the sun.
The loss of forward momentum stems from new obstacles ranging from insurance troubles to new highway construction, business owners say.
Just a block south of the city's Interstate 75 interchange, patrons pour into a renovated Wendy's restaurant for a quick bite during the afternoon commute. Visible up the hill from some of the tables, the shattered husk of a Shell gas station and attached car wash a few yards away await the scrap collectors.
Across I-75, a rebuilt Taco Bell restaurant on Alabama Highway buzzes with activity, but the roadside view of the tiny restaurant is dominated its next-door neighbor -- the destroyed hulk of a shattered motel.
The Super-8 motel appears much the way it did shortly after a monster tornado blasted through it, a shredded structure that stands as a grim reminder of a harrowing night and now a rubbernecking opportunity for passing motorists on the interstate.
A few spools of yellow caution tape stop only the most casual of observers from climbing into the condemned inn, walking into one of the open rooms and taking a seat on a waterlogged bed, still unmade after almost four months.
In fact, it could take two years to rebuild four of the city's destroyed hotels, said owner Naren Patel.
Reached by phone, Patel said he was still negotiating a cash settlement with the insurance company.
"We are going to rebuild," he said. "That's what I'm hoping for."
He said he would like to get started within 30 to 45 days, but he wouldn't discuss an exact timeline, construction costs or what form the new hotels would take.
One of Patel's motels -- The Day's Inn -- was first purchased in 1990 for $1.3 million or $2.25 million in today's dollars, according to the county's tax assessor's office.
"It's not a house you're going to rebuild in six months; it's a different animal," Patel said. "You're not building 5,000 square feet, you're building 80,000 square feet."
But Patel isn't the only one with problems.
When Chick-fil-A officials created a Facebook site in mid-July to ask residents if they would like a Ringgold location, hundreds of comments poured in.
"My family loves Chick-fil-A and would eat there often if it is located in Ringgold," one resident commented.
"Are you kidding me? The better question is why shouldn't they [open a Ringgold restaurant]!?," another one wrote.
To test the market, Chick-fil-A employees sold their signature sandwiches the next week from a health inspector-approved truck parked outside the First Tennessee Bank. Then the unexpected happened.
City officials said the food truck had to go, a decision that came just three weeks after the city launched a campaign declaring that "Ringgold, Georgia is open for business."
Officials gave little explanation for shutting down the venture, said Terry O'Neal, the Fort Oglethorpe Chick-fil-A store owner, whose employees had set up the truck.
"We're just not sure why they stopped what we were doing," O'Neal said.
Ringgold City Manager Dan Wright pauses outside Ringgold City Hall. Photo by Mike O’Neal
City Manager Dan Wright said Chick-fil-A didn't ask the city for permission to set up the truck, nor did owners go through the right channels to get approval for the sale of chicken sandwiches. However, Chick-fil-A has previously set up a mobile restaurant in town several years ago with no problems, he admitted.
"We would love to have [Chick-fil-A] in Ringgold," Wright said.
Frank Flinn, who offered Chick-fil-A his property for a potential store, wasn't satisfied with the official explanation for why Chick-fil-A truck had to go.
"They [city officials] want to control everything," he said. "They'd rather push people out."
Flinn's corner property was the home of Ringgold Flower Shop until it was leveled in the storm April 27. He's been trying to find a new tenant ever since.
What he describes as the city's kneejerk reaction could chase away business and set a bad precedent at a time when the city needs the tax dollars more than ever, he said.
Other businesses have stalled their rebuilding efforts after a $32 million state project on Alabama Highway threatened their property near I-75.
Three businesses near the interstate are now caught in a right-of-way battle with the state over driveway access because the project would close off the entrances to several gas stations and a Krystal restaurant, leaving them landlocked.
City officials say they are looking for other options for customers to enter the Krystal property, but federal regulations have tied their hands, said City Councilman Randall Franks.
State Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he hopes to have the problem resolved within the month after he negotiates with the Georgia Department of Transportation.
"We're at the very beginning of that process," Mullis said, but he added that there may be compromise involved and the restaurants may not get exactly what they want.
"There's never a 'no,' but there may be a 'no, however,'" he said.
Two other fast food restaurants have already reached a compromise with Georgia highway officials after months of delays that included the removal of a banner that hung in front McDonald's and promised the restaurant would be rebuilt by fall.
The highway expansion included a raised median that would block off access to McDonald's and Hardee's for some customers -- ultimately encouraging out-of-town motorists to take their business elsewhere, officials said.
Negotiators finally agreed to cut a turn lane in the median for the restaurants, which have since cleared away debris at their respective sites but have yet to rebuild.
Brenda Eckard, vice president of marketing for Hardee's parent company, J&S Restaurants, now says she hopes to have a brand-new store built within the next four months.
But the regularity roadblocks are moot if a business can't get the insurance money to rebuild in the first place.
Business officials say insurers have worked hard overall to get Ringgold back on track, but that doesn't mean it's been a walk in the park.
Danny Jackson, owner at Walter Jackson Chevrolet on Alabama Highway, has been performing a delicate balancing act. On one hand, his insurer is willing to pay for an exact replacement of his dealership as it was before the storm. On the other, General Motors, parent company of Chevrolet, is requiring its dealers to upgrade their buildings to conform with the company's new image.
"We're having to build it back like it was, but then we have to meet what GM wants in their requirements," Jackson said. "We can take it so far, but I'm not going to put the roof on and tear it back off."
Jackson expects to be back on track within four months, but his case is typical for holders of replacement insurance, said David Colmans, executive director for the Georgia Insurance Information Service.
To get money from insurers, policyholders must spend money. Replacement insurance policyholders must rebuild piece by piece and submit their invoices to the insurance company, which will reimburse the property owner as work is completed, he said.
"They won't pay until they see receipts and see that the work has been done," Colmans said.
But that's often preferable to the alternative, which is an actual cash settlement, he said. In such deals, the insurer may repay only the depreciated value of a property, which can be far less than its original cost or the cost of replacing the structure, he said.
"By the time it's over, if those people can't prove what they had, they'll have a hard time getting reimbursed," he said.
Through all the chaos, sometimes everything just comes together.
Tom Glenn, president of the group that owns the damaged Ace Hardware in Ringgold, experienced a perfect storm of coincidences that may lead to the do-it-yourself retailer reopening even earlier than expected.
"Each year when you're paying those [insurance] premiums and you say, 'We're never going to use this.' Now we're glad," he said.
The contractor who built the building only three years ago was still in business, and the structure was already up to code. Glenn's insurer allowed him to liquidate his waterlogged inventory and detailed plans for the building's construction were still accessible.
"Having a responsive insurance company and having a good general contractor, that's kind of the key," he said.
He'll be open the first week of October if all goes well.
"Our case couldn't be more ideal," he said. "Yeah, it's a pain to be closed, but we're getting back on track."
Contact Ellis Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6315.
Contact Joy Lukachick at email@example.com or 423-757-6659.
Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...