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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / The Mars Theatre District in Lafayette, Ga. on Wednesday, March 17, 2021.

The Mars Theatre District in LaFayette, Georgia, will soon see renovations and aesthetic improvements as new owner Robert Wardlaw hopes to make the old movie theater and surrounding row of storefronts a local and possibly regional destination.

"We see that entire district as a destination for entertainment, dining, arts and commerce," said Wardlaw, who recently purchased the Chattanooga Street property with cousin Robert "Buzz" Law. "We're confident that it can be that. It's going to take some tender loving care and some commitment, and we have both of those things."

The investors have family roots in the city, where the Wardlaw family owned and operated Coca-Cola Bottling Works of LaFayette for 80 years. Law's mother, Louellen Wardlaw Law, is the sister of Wardlaw's father.

According to an old photograph, the Mars Theatre opened in 1931, Wardlaw said, and he thinks it closed sometime in the late 1950s. The former movie theater was gutted by a fire in 2011, and businessman Mike Lovelady began to revitalize it and seven of the adjacent downtown storefronts — an area he dubbed the Mars Theatre District — the following year.

"I think it was time for the next phase in that development," Wardlaw said of his and Law's decision to purchase the property. "We've got a lot of confidence in the city of LaFayette and their commitment to growth, and we believe in the area."

Although Wardlaw serves as Walker County's director of economic development, his co-acquisition of the property is a private investment, he said.

The new owners' initial goal is to improve the properties' aesthetics, renovating each space and making it an attractive place for locals to gather, before attempting to make it a destination.

"LaFayette, and Walker County in general, is poised and ready for a place where people can gather and socialize and dine and be entertained," Wardlaw said. "A lot of people in LaFayette travel out of town for those experiences, and if we create a warm and inviting experience, it certainly won't stop people from going out of town by any means, but it will provide a viable alternative in town where we all feel comfortable gathering."

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LaFayette's Mars Theatre District

Wardlaw envisions the Mars Theatre, which community theater group Back Alley Productions has used as a venue for several years, hosting a variety of entertainment options throughout the year. His plans include further renovations and expansion of the theater's seating. There are currently 48 seats with capacity for more, although he's not sure exactly how many.

Other businesses already operating in the district include the Station House restaurant and a local CPA firm.

Across the street from Station House is the former Eagle Hotel, a two-story brick building that rests right on the old rail line, which Wardlaw sees as having potential for a variety of uses.

The first business to move in will be his own, a barbecue restaurant called Wardlaw's Lucky Eye Q, in the south end of the district. Wardlaw said he's previously sold his barbecue to benefit various causes, and the restaurant's opening will be the first time he's sold it for profit.

He sees support from local government and patrons as keys to the district's success.

"These types of projects are almost always most successful when there's leadership commitment and private investment and development, and that seems to be the case here," Wardlaw said.

LaFayette Mayor Andy Arnold said the city is in the process of expanding its official downtown development area, which now runs down Highway 27 from south of Main Street to the Marsh House, toward the Mars Theatre District on Chattanooga Street and down West Patton Street. That will allow the city's Downtown Development Authority to seek funds, including grants or low- to no-interest loans, to improve those areas, he said.

"It falls into the continued development of the downtown area," Arnold said of the Mars Theatre District. "Robert is a friend of my family for a long, long time, and it's just exciting for him to foresee the good that the city's doing and developing in the city and investing in the city."

Contact Emily Crisman at 423-309-3071 or ecrisman@timesfreepress.com.

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