By Mary Catherine Gaston
The State of Georgia's Historic Tax Credit Program provides a state income tax credit to individuals who renovate qualified historic properties. During the 2019 legislative session the Assembly updated the program to extend the window during which the credits may be used and to remove the program's end-date of 2024. Created in 2002, the historic tax credit program has encouraged historic rehabilitation projects throughout the state, and approximately 300 of those have utilized the credit.
In this three-part series, the Rural Center will highlight three projects in rural areas that utilized the tax credit and have helped spur economic development and local pride in their communities.
Google “Empire Mills Madison, Georgia,” and what you will discover is a hip, new event venue that doesn’t actually look very new at all. Originally constructed as a cotton oil mill in 1912, Empire Mills consists of five beautifully renovated structures that are part of 17,000 square feet of indoor-outdoor multi-purpose event space situated in one of the state’s best preserved historic, small towns.
Hallie Duan, Empire Mills’ owner and developer, purchased the dilapidated mill property in 2011 and began the process of bringing it into its current form. Her successful catering and events business, Hallie Jane’s, is now headquartered in the facility that earned a 2019 Excellence in Rehabilitation Award from the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation.
When Duan first entertained the idea of creating an event venue in 2006, she had a booming catering business but knew its growth potential was limited as long as she relied on off-premises jobs. She and her team were then preparing food and driving it 20 to 30 minutes to other area venues.
“Madison is a rural community, but we’re just two miles off the interstate,” Duan says. “We’re easily accessible from the Atlanta airport as well as Augusta and Athens. So I knew there was a market for what I had in mind.”
What the New York native had in mind was not just a business opportunity, but also the chance to impact her community in the process of transforming a local eyesore. The only major problem with her plan? At the time, the property wasn’t for sale.
When it eventually became available, it never even hit the market. Having previously expressed her interest in it, Duan was able to make an offer before the property was listed.
With a contract on the old mill, her next move was to meet with Madison’s Historic Preservation Commission and local leaders, who suggested she utilize historic preservation tax credit programs at the state and federal levels. They then helped her every step of the way as she applied for the credits, secured funding and oversaw the renovation according to the agencies’ stringent guidelines.
In addition to renovation, the project required significant infrastructure improvements like digging under the adjacent railroad tracks to tie in to city sewer lines. There were those early-on who thought Duan was crazy. Some even told her so. But supportive, knowledgeable local leaders made all the difference, and after a years-long process, Empire Mills opened in July 2017.
Duan explains that, from every wedding her team hosts, the local economy directly benefits. The influx of visitors means local hotels are filled, shops and restaurants are patronized, and local musicians, servers and bartenders get to work closer to home.
Those aren’t the only local impacts. Duan also established a relationship with a local high school that features a culinary academy. The school has been a source of interns and work study students for Hallie Jane’s and Empire Mills.
“I consider myself a steward of this property,” Duan says. “Maybe 100 years from now, someone else will be doing something else with it. I am here to help make that possible.”