HOW TO HELP
If you want to be involved in Rebuilding Ringgold plans, visit the Rebuild Ringgold booth at the 1890s Day Jamboree and sign up.
RINGGOLD, Ga. — No one here really knows how to build a town from the ground up.
But the recent tornado has Ringgold residents grappling with a dilemma — whether to resurrect their town as it was or convert it to something more inviting.
Last week, as truck engines roared and safety workers hauled out fallen drywall and debris outside Jenni Sweet’s hair salon window in downtown Ringgold, she and her co-workers contemplated the options.
“If you’re going to start over now, go for a whole new look,” said Becky Yarbrough, a massage therapist at Sweet’s salon, Hair Tamer.
At its last meeting, the City Council passed an optional appearance guideline for businesses as they rebuild. That sparked some of the debate in the back room of Sweet’s shop.
“We need change,” Sweet agreed.
She looked up at the giant bulge in the ceiling where water leaked in when the tornado sheared off part of her roof. The only way she can make her shop better is if the insurance company gives her enough money, she said.
“I’d like to use this storm to increase revenue here, rather than just going back to the way it was,” she said.
Right now the town is focused on the massive cleanup from the April 27 tornado: 30 destroyed businesses and almost 540 houses damaged or demolished. But how to rebuild is on the minds of community leaders, business owners and residents.
“Everybody I’ve talked to loves the small-town feel of Ringgold; that’s what makes this town what it is,” said David Dunn, the local public defender. “But small-town doesn’t have to mean rundown.”
After the tornado wiped out a section of Nashville Street and the business district on Alabama Highway, Dunn and other community members formed the Phoenix Group to spearhead ideas for how the town should be rebuilt.
The first idea was to agree on a look for the town and get businesses to rebuild using a similar model, Dunn said. Everyone rebuilding on the same aesthetic page would help make the town more attractive and draw in more tourists, he said.
Ross Andrews, a local architect, was asked to design a draft.
“They asked me, ‘What is the theme of Ringgold?’” Andrews said.
His answer was Georgian architecture — a whimsical, gothic style famous in the late 18th century. It’s the same style Andrews said he used when he designed Ringgold City Hall in 1999.
The City Council decided to adopt Andrews’ design as an option for businesses to use when they rebuild. But it’s not mandatory, just a hopeful suggestion — an idea the group agreed made the most sense.
“All we can do is ask,” said Ringgold Mayor Joe Barger. “That’s the way it ought to be.”
But once the resolution passed, rumors spread fast through town that officials were going to force owners to rebuild their businesses a certain way.
On the “Rebuilding Ringgold” Facebook page that Dunn created, several residents posted comments protesting any change at all.
“We don’t need appearance standards! Ringgold was perfect the way it was,” one commenter said.
“I think Ringgold needs to be rebuilt they way it was. The people who want to modernize Ringgold need to move Chattanooga or Atlanta,” another said.
But local business owners such as Raye Brooks, president of Ringgold Downtown Partners, a local merchants association, have a different outlook.
For Ringgold to thrive, the town must bring the historic downtown area and Alabama Highway business district together, she said. Some ideas include more sidewalks and trees along the highway.
“Somehow we have to make them connect,” Brooks said during a Friday meeting with the Phoenix Group.
Brooks and 11 other business owners and residents got together at Caffeine Addicts — on the downtown business strip that’s still open — to mull the next step.
Someone suggested highlighting Ringgold’s Civil War history — the Battle of Ringgold Gap. Another said he didn’t want to make Ringgold centered around tourism like other nearby communities.
We don’t want a Helen [Ga.] or a Gatlinburg,” Dunn told the group.
Owners of some businesses along Alabama Highway destroyed by the tornado — including McDonald’s and Taco Bell — have told city officials they plan to build updated models of their stores.
But officials said there is still a big unknown.
The Georgia Department of Transportation plans to expand the highway from U.S. 41 to Rollins Industrial Park — about two miles — to make the entire stretch four lanes, said Greg Hood, GDOT’s district planning and programing engineer. The project is scheduled to start in 2013.
Some officials fear that some businesses won’t rebuild because of the expansion project.
Catoosa County Commissioner Jim Cutler isn’t one of them, though.
“I fully expect to see them reopen,” Cutler said. “I would be surprised if they didn’t.”
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 ...