For the Love of LaFayette

For the Love of LaFayette

Native son Michael Lovelady has an ingrained appreciation for the Walker County seat

September 27th, 2012 in Local Regional News

He did not come intending to lead the extreme makeover of a small Northwest Georgia town.

No, Michael Lovelady's coming to LaFayette was a homecoming.

That he has become something of a one-man crusader for his hometown's urban renewal occurred more by accident than design.

Michael Lovelady shows off the dining room of his restaurant, One-Eleven, in downtown LaFayette.

Michael Lovelady shows off the dining room of...

Photo by Mike O’Neal

He and son Gary had grown weary of living and operating a business in Atlanta, a town Lovelady describes as "sprawled out; you couldn't move fast enough to stay ahead of the growth." They decided to relocate Correctional Electronics Supply Inc. somewhere around LaFayette.

His son had grown up hearing stories about cruising the drive-ins and circling the square. But shortly after the move from Atlanta's hustle, LaFayette seemed, if not lifeless, subdued. Lovelady said the city of his youth had changed, and the vibrant downtown scene he remembered was only that: a memory.

Rather than just shrug his shoulders and turn toward Chattanooga, Dalton or Rome for a taste of urban living, Lovelady did what engineers do when faced with a problem: he built something.

Lovelady had been away for about 40 years. After earning a degree in electrical engineering at Georgia Tech, he had worked for companies that developed the heads-up display for F-16 fighters, avionics for airborne early warning and control aircraft and electronics used in missile systems.

"Then peace broke out," he said.

Shifting from working with military contractors to the commercial world led Lovelady to stints in Boston and Cincinnati before he settled in Atlanta. He designed remote meter readers and started his own firm, which had some products carried by Home Depot. But the business's big break came when Lovelady developed a system of electronically controlled locks for prisons.

Providing the security system used in Georgia's prisons has meant there is a steady demand for products and designs, but it also meant the company could operate outside the environs of the state's capital city.

The move to Northwest Georgia has provided benefits, but some amenities were lacking.

"After living here for about two years, we were missing the kind of restaurants we'd grown accustomed to in Atlanta," said Lovelady.

The need for office space had prompted him to acquire a circa-1906 building that once housed a hardware store and an auto dealership. But as renovation led to pulling away dropped ceiling panels and Sheetrock installed in previous remodels, Lovelady, who had studied architecture, changed plans and the idea of an upscale restaurant - now open in the building and called One-Eleven - gained form.

"So much of its architectural bones remained in place," he said.

"As a business, we've always been involved in our community," Lovelady said. "We're trying to be more than a restaurant, we're trying to establish a meeting place for the community."

That interest in community led Lovelady to become active with the LaFayette Downtown Development Authority, which in turn has found him becoming involved in events outside the restaurant. He offers free shuttle service, in a long black limo, between the LaFayette-Barwick Airport and his restaurant, and has made One-Eleven available for numerous charity fundraisers.

An avid car collector, particularly of 1970's-era oddities such as Opel GT's, a Bobcat, a Pinto wagon, a Saab Sonnet and a Mustang, he and his friend Wolfgang Geiger, a fellow LaFayette businessman and restorer of classic cars, have been the driving forces in a monthly series of cruise-ins held on the downtown square.

Lovelady also purchased the inflatable screen and video projection equipment that makes possible "Movie in the Park" nights at Joe Stock Memorial Park.

But perhaps his most ambitious project is the wholesale restoration of an entire block of buildings on South Chattanooga Street.

Known as the Mars Theater District, the project started much like that of restoring One-Eleven. Initial plans were that the DDA would spearhead renewal of what is a blighted area that is on the "wrong" side of the railroad tracks. But the sometimes glacial pace of DDA projects and grant applications were at odds with the rapid deterioration of the buildings and prompted Lovelady to make the project his own.

Soon the restored buildings will house shops and yet another Lovelady-owned restaurant. Those are the plans, at least.

"Nobody could envision what the Mars District could be," he said. "It is high risk."

High risk, yes, but Lovelady points to Norcross and Rome as cities where leaders have attracted followers and entire towns have benefited.

"In Norcross one restaurant did OK; five did great," he said, echoing what regional planners have said about the riverside renaissance in Rome. "We're looking to attract businesses that will complement each other, an eclectic mix, in order to succeed."

And like his hope for One-Eleven, the engineer-turned-entrepreneur said his aim is not just to serve customers in a restaurant, but to serve the entire community."