RINGGOLD, Ga. - As a stream of cars drove through the once-thriving business area along Alabama Highway last week, three men were suspended high in the air on a bucket lift, hanging a bell-shaped sign onto a freshly painted, salmon-colored building.
All around were signs that April's vicious tornados laid waste to the area.
A Dumpster sits next to a bent and shredded Super 8 Motel sign. A blue tarp covers a Pizza Hut.
But smack in the middle of the destruction, the newly rebuilt Taco Bell stands as a reminder that the town of about 3,500 people is coming back. This week, the fast-food restaurant will become the first heavily damaged business along the highway to reopen.
"We're so excited," said Joy Thornton, a local resident and business owner. "We have this fear that people drive there and say all of Ringgold is gone."
Workers were putting the finishing touches on the new Taco Bell building last week. Officials say the grand opening will be Thursday morning.
"That was our goal, to be first to reopen," said Taco Bell spokeswoman April Hurst. "We've succeeded."
During the April 27 storms, more than 121 businesses were damaged and at least 30 were destroyed in Ringgold, according to the city. Nearly every fast-food restaurant, hotel and gas station was wiped out along Alabama Highway near Interstate 75.
But in downtown Ringgold, several businesses were untouched by the storm.
Local officials and downtown business owners hope the progress near the interstate will help attract more customers to shop and eat downtown.
"A lot of businesses are hurting," said Daniel Shepherd, the city's marketing coordinator. "I can understand because people are coming off the interstate and everything is wiped out."
Meanwhile, most of the other businesses along Alabama Highway have submitted plans to Catoosa County building inspector Rick Quarles to rebuild, but the dates to reopen remain hazy.
"Everybody is trying to get moving as quickly as possible," said Quarles.
Some of the hold-up has been insurance negotiations and unexpected delays from corporate offices, he said.
Another obstacle in the reconstruction is the Georgia Department of Transportation project expected to start in 2013 that will expand the highway to four lanes over a two-mile stretch and affect a number of properties.
With an opportunity to start over, some community leaders and business owners formed the Phoenix Group to spearhead ideas for how the town should be rebuilt.
The first idea was to rebuild using a similar model - an idea that was taken to Ringgold City Council members. City officials decided not to enforce a design code, but instead came up with a list of suggestions businesses could follow:
• Promote the original historic quality architecture of Ringgold.
• No "big-box" chain storefront appearance.
• Signs should be lower and pedestrian-oriented. No large vehicular freeway signs up high.
These are among the 10 recommendations from city officials that Quarles gave businesses as they submitted their new plans.
"A lot [of businesses] are redesigning," he said.
At Taco Bell, the old uniform colors have been replaced with more pastels and a modern look. The inside of the dining area has been expanded and the painting being hung on the bright orange walls accents the room.
In the hall, a display of pictures will be hung showing what the restaurant looked like before the storm, then when it was hit and now rebuilt, Hurst said.
Only a few business owners are concerned about GDOT's expansion project, but some of them still are deciding whether they should rebuild, Quarles said.
The plan is to widen the highway to four lanes and put a median in the middle, said Mohamed Arafa, GDOT spokesman. A larger bridge will be built over I-75 and new sidewalks will lead into downtown Ringgold.
GDOT officials are in the beginning stages of talking with business owners and eventually will buy 50 pieces of property, Arafa said. The properties are both residential and commercial, he said.
"Sometimes we take the whole property, and sometimes part of it," he said.
State officials are working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to figure out how to evaluate tornado-damaged property to give a fair price, Arafa said. A town hall meeting is scheduled for mid-July to begin talking with area business and home owners, he said.
After the storm, gawkers came from all over the area to see the devastation. But when the crowds stopped, undamaged businesses such as Thornton's United Gift Shop took a financial hit.
Customers just aren't driving all the way downtown, Thornton said.
The city came up with a short-term plan to place banners near the interstate exits that say downtown Ringgold businesses are open.
"We'd like to get some permanent signs. Something directing people downtown," said Shepherd.
While most businesses are suffering, the popular diner Aunt Effie's is hopping.
"We are the only game in town," said restaurant owner Jim Cox.
The diner's windows were blown out and a small section of the roof pulled off, but it reopened two weeks later, Cox said. The businesses next door still are boarded up, and some customers are eating at the diner three or four times a week.
"They know we're open," he said with a laugh.
But Cox admits he is losing out on the business he would get from the motels.
"It's kind of a two-edged sword," he said. "We're getting business we wouldn't, but missing out on others."
Contact Joy Lukachick at firstname.lastname@example.org.