Renaissance in Lyons
Lyons is getting it right.
The downtown area is thriving. The community’s signature events — the Real Squeal BBQ and Music Festival, Tales from the Altamaha, and the annual Southeast Georgia Soap Box Derby — are pulling in the crowds year after year. The city government, the newlyrevitalized Lyons Development Authority, and Lyons’ highly successful Main Street Program are true partners in community development. As the county seat, Lyons is the location for a stunning new courthouse now under construction, and it is the home of the county’s bustling industrial park. It’s a friendly community in which to live, and yet it warmly welcomes visitors who are attracted to its variety of unique eateries and shops. It’s a safe community. Crime is low, thanks to an efficient police presence. The population growth has been steady as the community is primed for future residential continued from page
and commercial development. Many say that Lyons is a model community that has raised the bar for other small towns in rural areas.
“All of the stars aligned at the right time,” said Lyons City Manager Jason Hall. But the stars didn’t align of their own volition. They got a lot of help from people who had a clear vision of what Lyons could become and were willing to work as partners in the city’s future.
While downtown Lyons has come a long way in recent years, the transformation didn’t happen overnight, and, obviously, is still very much in progress. While there is an overarching vision for the city’s continued growth, gaps still need to be closed, Hall said.
Hall came to Lyons in 2013, and change was already underway. With the addition of the high-end destination eatery, Elements, in the mid-2000s the sleepy, rural town took on a new sophistication. Once Elements was established, the novel Hardware Pizza opened across the road, offering the public a more relaxed and moderately priced dining alternative.
Momentum was building in downtown Lyons. Business people took notice and invested in formerly derelict property that was renovated and leased. With the help of Lyons Main Street, buildings within a four-block area of downtown got new facades. Other improvements, like upgraded sidewalks and roads, were redesigned to make downtown a more walkable destination for shopping, eating and celebrating. Development Authority Resurrected A groundbreaking development in the effort to move Lyons forward is the resurrection of the Lyons Development Authority.
“We had three development authorities in Lyons, two statutory development authorities and one constitutional development authority,” Mayor Willis NeSmith divulged. In the effort to resolve this issue in the best interest of future growth, the City sought the help of the Carl Vinson Institute at the University of Georgia.
NeSmith explained that one of the City’s statutory development authorities became inactive when the Toombs-Montgomery County Development Authority was formed, so that issue was, in effect, moot. The second statutory development authority concerned only four blocks of downtown Lyons, essentially limiting its authority. “The constitutional development authority had the most power,” NeSmith explained.
“When the state was dissolving these types of authorities in the 1990s, someone in Lyons had the foresight to say, ‘Let’s keep ours.’ All but seven of these types of authorities were dissolved. What triggered this move then was that the Council saw downtown Lyons was on the move again,” NeSmith said. Hall said that this Development Authority has powers which go beyond the capabilities of both Main Street and the City Council, for instance, the authority can buy and sell property, negotiate real estate transactions, and finance start-ups. Main Street and the City Council cannot do these things.
“We’re probably a year behind Vidalia,” Hall said of the City of Vidalia’s Development Authority and recent developments in downtown Vidalia. “But we were slow by design,” he said, referencing the need to make sound decisions on the role of the Development Authority and carefully selecting a fivemember body that would allow individual members to utilize their expertise while working together in accord.
The constitutional body has authority not just in downtown Lyons but also anywhere in the county, if the transaction benefits the City of Lyons. It can also work with both retail and industrial prospects. The Authority’s initial focus will be acquiring capital to be used as seed money to dovetail into economic development. The Authority has been given acreage inside the city limits to build a financial base. It will not be supported with taxes from the City of Lyons, for now. “We could do a mill but we don’t want to; we feel that sale of the property is good enough,” said Mayor Ne-Smith.
“We needed a mechanism to buy and renovate property,” Hall said, noting there are little pockets in downtown Lyons that need to be addressed now. “Some properties are just being used for storage and some cannot be used at all. How do we make investment in these properties so can get ready for retail investment?”
One of biggest obstacles facing the City of Lyons is residential living space for people moving into the community. Hall applied for and landed a grant from UGA for a housing study in Lyons that revealed a surprising number of vacant lots and abandoned housing.
Mayor NeSmith observed, “Even though the census showed we had a population loss, I felt like we gained. With the health pandemic, I don’t think the census was very valuable. I met a couple that retired and moved here from Texas. Families are moving here from California and Colorado because there is a lower tax base and a lower cost of living.”
Hall said that even if the population is stable, if housing is not being built, a gap in housing is eventually created.
While the City of Lyons will not build apartments downtown, it would support mixed use of the property. “It comes down to property owners in the downtown district seeing the value in property, and a long-term return on investment.”
He mentioned the famous, historic Elberta Hotel in Lyons that, if turned into apartments tomorrow, would have a waiting list. “The hospital has told us they have physicians who want to move here and the one thing that is an obstacle is available housing. They are not looking for a 5,000-square-foot house in the country. They are looking for small townhouse in which to move in quick, settle in, and decide later where they want to live for long term.” Building a good database is critical to applying for grants, Hall said. The team of UGA master’s students who recently surveyed housing in Lyons logged in 700 hours of work. The study didn’t cost Lyons anything but a few meals for the students, but it was not a job the City of Lyons could have accomplished on its own. “If residential housing funds do become available, we will have the data to plug in,” Hall said.
New Park Downtown
One of the most ambitious projects launched by the City of Lyons is a new park across the road from City Hall. The cityowned site now includes an old public works facility, an unoccupied brick structure, and the city’s fire department. In a few weeks the public works structure will be demolished and the public works operation will be moved to a cityowned location near the police department on U.S. Highway 1. The new green space will offer a large pavilion with stage, a small playground, public bathrooms, additional parking, lighting and manicured walking paths. The project is expected to be completed in three years and will afford the city’s annual Real Squeal Barbecue and Music Festival a perfect location. Under current conditions, the City has to block off downtown roads to accommodate the festival, part of which also takes place at Partin Park.
Construction will commence in 2023-2024. The brick building on the premises will become a retail space, possibly a sandwich shop, and the fire station will stay in place but get a new brick façade to blend in with the rest of the cityscape.
“People come to downtown Lyons for a variety of reasons. We want to make everything downtown cohesive and connected, accessible and attractive — and walkable within two or three blocks,” Hall said. Future T-SPLOST funded projects including two roundabouts and a bypass on Georgia Highway 292, which runs through Lyons, will ease traffic. Upgrading the crosswalks over two sites along the railroad tracks will make it easier for pedestrians to traverse the tracks. This work, along with the provision of additional downtown parking, are in the queue.
Main Street’s Role
“People make Lyons unique—the friendliness, openness, giving,” said Main Street Director Daphne Walker. “It’s the personal touch. Everything accomplished in this town is done by lots of people with the same goal. It’s not just one person.” Walker has been heading the Main Street Program for seven years. In that time, she has witnessed tremendous positive growth that began in what she calls the Elements era. Even though Elements’ purpose has changed from restaurant to events venue, it left an indelible mark on the future of Lyons. It started a renaissance. When she first started her job, Walker had a list of goals, including putting in a new pocket park near her current headquarters and developing the town’s museum. She is getting close to seeing both of those plans come to fruition. “I’m just trying to complete the vision,” she said. But more plans are always on the horizon.
Walker recently became part of CREATE, a program that awarded grants to six rural Georgia communities, including Toombs County. Through CREATE and other rural initiatives, Georgia Power Community and Economic Development helps rural and small towns across Georgia plan for sustainable growth.
Besides Walker, CREATE community champions include Tonya Green Parker (Downtown Vidalia Association); Jency Jeffers (Lyons Main Street and City of Lyons Zoning & Planning); Brian Frederick (Vidalia Downtown Development Authority); Ivette Torres Guzman (Greater Vidalia Chamber); and Heather Davis (entrepreneur). continued from page
“It will allow us to work together so we will all be sending out the same message and not be duplicating efforts. We want to be seen as a community that is working together,” Walker said. The program will provide hands-on guidance and tools to accomplish projects like putting together a new business packet — sort of a one-stop, entrepreneurial kickstart to get businesses up and running.
Walker is excited about the diversity of enterprises in Lyons, including the newest venture, Victor Wolfe’s Nine Columns Bed and Breakfast, which has been doing a brisk business. “It’s a good asset for Lyons, which only has one motel,” Walker said. She cited G, Marie’s, which specializes in formal wear. “When G, Marie’s moved to that corner of town, it changed the dynamics of that corner,” Walker said. The business is located at the intersection of busy U.S. Highway 1 and Highway 292 and as traffic pauses at the red lights, G. Marie’s ever-changing window dressing has stirred up
interest. Walker praises the camaraderie of downtown merchants who work together to promote the community. “Ginger Russell, owner of G. Marie’s, hands out coupons to her customers for Burger on Broad,” Walker said. “This entices to people to stay and eat after they shop.”
“All roads lead to Lyons” is the community’s theme, and everyone is on board with bringing in the crowds.
The merchants also pitch in for celebrations downtown and the community at large, including the Scare on the Square, held for the first time last Halloween; Spring Fling; the community’s annual Soapbox Derby, now in is 30th year, Real Squeal and Christmas events.
Spreading the word about what Lyons has to offer has been accomplished in part through its website, lyonsmainstreet. com. “It’s a great website that features a business map, a walking map, and lists upcoming events,” Walker explained. A business development resource page will be fleshed out to coordinate with CREATE’s objectives.
Instead of being annoyed at train whistles, Lyons embraces its connection with the railroad. The new logo for Main Street features a train.
Soon, Walker will be moving her office to the new museum, which will also house the welcome center. There are plans to create a historic research center and reading room on the third floor of the museum, which is a former car parts store and Masonic lodge. The family of local historian Fred Brogdon donated funds for the reading room and research center. A parking lot behind the museum is also in the works.
“A lot of what we do is partnerships. It is one piece at a time,” Walker said of the teamwork behind the Main Street Committee, the City of Lyons, the merchants and the Development Authority. The Merchants Speak
Connie Wilson Lopez was born and raised in Lyons and is glad she was able to come back home to establish a successful business. She and her husband Tony own Prime Cut, a steakhouse with a reputation for good food and good spirits.
“Tony was the one with the restaurant background. He managed four different restaurants in Naples, Florida, and owned one. He also managed Elements for years,” Connie said. When she approached her husband about building a restaurant in downtown Lyons, he said, “You put the numbers together and show me how it can happen.“ Connie said, “I just wanted to do something in my hometown. I remember growing up and visiting the downtown stores, going to the movies. My grandfather Brooks Coursey worked at Trapnel Hardware where Andy’s Home Center is located. My mother Martha Wilson worked at Ideal Pharmacy.” Connie’s father, Carlis, was a commercial builder and that’s where she picked up knowledge about that trade.
In creating a restaurant, Connie had a vision of something spacious, with an industrial theme, and an atmosphere where people could come in jeans and a tee or dress up and have date or a business meeting. “I felt it could go either way. Not too fancy, not too relaxed.” She wanted to include a bar area with tables for more casual dining, as well as event rooms, dining rooms, and an outside area with tables — and she also envisioned a wine cellar and wine club.
“How could I dovetail into what’s in Lyons?” Connie said she asked herself when considering the challenge. “When I came back to Lyons, it was the Elements era,” she said, noting the high-end eatery was a catalyst for change which made people sit up and take notice. “It set the bar. Lyons is not a cookiecutter town.” Connie oversaw every square inch of the business she owned with her husband and two other investors, Craig Jones and wife Stephanie, who own 40% of the business. She is especially proud of the stateof- the art kitchen and a bar with a centerpiece made from a slab of sycamore. “The bar is a salute to Lyons’ history. We don’t want our history to disappear. History is what made us.” The bar features photos of Lyons’ past, and Connie is thrilled when customers ask about her family. “It makes us all feel connected.”
Venezuelan-born Tony, with a background in creating Italian fare and expertise in how to pair wine and food, has enhanced Prime Cut’s reputation. The restaurant Is not only known for its good food — which includes its signature steak and a wide range of other dishes — but its wine club and wine tasting events. Word of the couple’s success with these events even led to a phone call to Connie one day from none other than California winemaker Michael Mondavi. When she took the call as she was driving, she doubted that the caller was really Mondavi. She said, “Yeah, right,” after Mondavi announced himself. He told her to look at the caller ID which revealed the call was indeed from California. Connie said Mondavi professed that he was surprised about the success of the wine tasting at her restaurant featuring his products. He had heard about the event from one of his distributors. Connie shared, “He wondered about all of these wine drinkers in a small Georgia town. How did you start doing wine in the Sweet Onion capital?” He invited the Lopezes to California to visit his operation there. Connie believes that towns like Lyons will become more and more popular with locals and tourists. “I think society is moving toward smaller, more intimate retail and dining experiences. The prices may be higher, but people don’t mind paying a little more for that personal touch.”
She sees Lyons as a hub for the area because of the new courthouse, and because of its history and its unique community ambience. She does not want those qualities to be overlooked.
There were a lot of hurt feelings about the rebranding of the local chamber that represents Toombs and Montgomery Counties as the Greater Vidalia Chamber, she said. “Some People in Lyons felt left out. It took us so long to come together and grow together with the same goals. We want unity and not division. Changing the name was not about pushing one city over another. We need to move on.”
The rivalry between the Toombs County municipalities of Lyons and Vidalia goes back a long time, but has diminished over the last few years — other than the traditional crosstown face-offs on the football field. When ground was broken for the new courthouse, a ceremonial burying of the hatchet officially put to rest the rivalry that is now more legend that fact.
Missy Hall, Burgers on Broad Missy Hall runs a popular eatery on Broad Street. She opened Burgers on Broad in February 2020, right in the middle of the health pandemic, which she said did not hurt business at all. “Business actually grew. We have DoorDash,” she said. At that time, the restaurant featured baked goods and sandwiches, but when she began offering hamburgers on Fridays, customers wanted the burgers to be a staple. The former proprietor of Cookie Boss bakery transitioned to burgers (and more) and never looked back. Now, business is so good that Hall is running out of space. “Business has been fantastic,” she said, noting that she and her staff of six prepare about 80 burgers a day. We have continued from page
outgrown our space and I would love to be able to find a bigger building,” she said, insisting that location would be in downtown Lyons.
Customers come from all around, the area and beyond, she said. “One couple from Florida found us on Facebook and came over here to eat. We have 5300 followers on our Burgers on Broad Facebook page.”
The Chattanooga native came to Lyons in 2013 when her husband Jason was hired at city manager. While Burgers on Broad is famous for its burgers and hand cut fries, it also offers pasta salad, does keto versions of the burger, and also offers wraps and sausage dogs. Cookies baked in the store come with a meal. Once a month Burgers on Broad hosts a live band on the sidewalk out front. The establishment is one of the few restaurants that has a license to serve alcohol on the sidewalk.
“Everyone is welcome. We have people who leave Hardware Pizza in the next block and walk down here to listen to band.” Their next stop might be Scoops for ice cream or a little late shopping at Dandelyons. The walkability of downtown Lyons is another reason for its success, Hall said.
Wes Wilkes, Hardware Pizza Hardware Pizza owner Wes Wilkes said, “We pride ourselves on having customers from a 45-mile radius on any given day.” He credits “all of the great things going on in Toombs County that bring people to our area that benefit local merchants. I can’t stress it enough.” He referenced the tremendous crowds the recent Onion Festival brought to the area, as well as the community’s other signature events. “We always see those events as opportunities to gain new customers. The next time they come back to the community, we hope they will think of us.” As proof positive of this premise, Wilkes noted that sports activities bring throngs of visitors to the area each year. In the past few weeks, Hardware Pizza has served customers from out of town here for the baseball and softball games. Some of the same people came into the eatery multiple times.
Wilkes, a native of Vidalia who now woks as in marketing and development at a Swainsboro credit union, bought Hardware Pizza in November of 2019, four months before COVID struck. “This is the first year really we have experienced a non-COVID closure. It is energizing to see this (business) and feel the impact from the community. “I tell my staff, hopefully, we are doing something right.”
While he has been in finance for 22 years now, Wilkes does not see his ownership of Hardware Pizza as a sideline. “We put a lot of hours in. It takes a lot of efforts on everyone’s part.” He saw acquiring he pizza restaurant as a wise investment. “What we offer is unique to the area. Lyons is a good place to do business because the low cost of the building and property; that helps a business owner,” he said. But the attraction is also in the atmosphere in downtown Lyons. “It’s off the main thoroughfare where we are, safe enough to let kids leave the store and visit ice cream store and come back.” Ginger Russell, G. Marie’s and Dandelyons Ginger Russell is from nearby Normantown. She grew up on a farm in a house occupied by five women. She never aspired to being involved in fashion merchandising, but she is now very successful in that field.
Russell founded G. Marie’s formal wear boutique in downtown Lyons in 2015. She had gotten into the formal wear business by chance, after being gifted several prom dresses that grew to an inventory of 1,000 gowns. She operated out of her home for years before taking the step to invest in a store.
When she outgrew the first site, she relocated to the corner of Georgia Highway 292 and U.S. Highway 1 in Lyons. The h improve- ments she made to the building literally changed the dynamics of the corner. She turned her former location into a trendy little boutique called Dandelyons.
Now, Russell has expanded to offer hundreds of fashions for bridal events, proms, pageants, quinceaneras, and dressy occasions. Her customers are not just local. They come from as far away as Hilton Head, South Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida; Atlanta, and Americus. Customers hear about her from other customers, but Russell takes advantage of her social media footprint: a web site, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. Her store employees often model new inventory that is shared online.
Another big marketing tool is her window dressing. Motorists passing by admire the window displays, and tell her so. “I have my entire calendar planned for next year, she said of her window displays that are based on seasonal themes.
“I cannot tell you what an honor it is to have this store and be in downtown Lyons. We have a good core group of businesses that work together and have a vision for a busy shopping district in downtown Lyons,” Russell said. Parthiv (Taco) Thakore, T-Byrd’s Parthiv (Taco) Thakore and his wife, Komal, have invested in downtown Lyons with three businesses: T-Byrd’s Liquor Store, T-Byrd’s Fluff-n-Fold, and T-Byrd’s Slice and Ice. Through their stores, they offer a wide range of liquor, a laundromat, and an eatery specializing in pizza, chicken and snow cones.
The Thakores are also the proprietors of T-Byrd’s in Mount Vernon, named for Tommy Byrd, who was the store’s first owner/operator. Thakore decided to retain the name “T-Byrd” for all of his businesses.
A native of India, Thakore came to America in 1976, after finishing high school in the Middle East. He graduated from the University of Louisiana and moved to Georgia in 2006. His first store in Lyons was a convenience Kristin Edkin, Scoops
Kristin Edkin opened Scoops in downtown Lyons in May, 2018. Her shop specialized in ice cream and candy and is a paradise for kids of all ages. “We live in Lyons and wanted to support the local downtown. We wanted to help bring more businesses to Lyons. There’s still so much potential for our little town,” Edkin said.
Edkin chose to open a sweets shop because Scoops is a franchise and there was one in her hometown of Covington. “I knew the brand and I knew it would be a great asset to our community. We didn’t have anything like it in Toombs County. And who doesn’t like hand-dipped ice cream, candy and gourmet chocolates? It always puts a smile on our customers’ faces and makes their day even sweeter.” George Powell, Andy’s Home Center When George Powell retired in 2013, he turned over his Vidalia Handy Andy store to son Russ Bell but decided to reinvest himself in the hardware store he owned in Lyons. “I thought it might be a good retirement activity,” he mused, adding, “Lyons needs a hardware store.”
Powell had established a hardware store in Lyons in 1986 on the site of
store. Thakore is a member of the Main Street Committee as well as the newly-restored Lyons Development Authority. One might say he is the ideal representation of “The American Dream.” He and his wife have worked hard to achieve success, and believe in giving back to the city that has helped them to prosper. continued from page
a former similar business. He thought the location would be a good location for serving not only Lyons, but also the nearby communities of Reidsville, Metter and Cobbtown.
Business was good, and as time went on, he discovered he needed to expand. The City of Lyons sold him an old manufacturing plant next door to his hardware store and that is where he located Andy’s Lumber Express. Now, business is booming. He credits a good store manager, Jesse Flowers, and a good staff. “We may not carry all of the items the big box stores carry, but we can offer one- on-one personal service. That’s what separates us from the rest.”
He is modest about his impact in the community, but city officials and other merchants see him and his enterprise as an anchor. Recently, he was named to chair the newly-revitalized Development Authority.
Now, he looks forward to helping to guide the community’s future. He sees the Development Authority as a catalyst for Lyons’ next era of growth. “Lyons has so much potential. We hope we can help individuals with an entrepreneurial spirit.”
He referenced the view from his store down Broad Street where the dome of the new courthouse is visible above the trees. There are plans for a walkway from the courthouse to the end of Broad. Beyond that, a new park is on the horizon.
“Lyons has already had so much growth, but to survive, we need to have businesses that are destination. We already have some eateries that a drawing customers from outside the area,” he said. “We have some parking issues and issues with abandoned sites we need to address.” But, he believes Lyons has built on a solid foundation for what is next.