Side-railed since July 2011, the Tate Depot restoration project appears to be headed back onto the mainline.
"It's back on track," said Pickens County Commissioner Robert Jones. "The plan's being redrawn."
Signs pointed to a groundbreaking on the project in late summer 2011, when forward progress derailed. As drawn then, the project raised red flags with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Historic Preservation Division.
Historic Preservation Architectural Review Officer Dean Baker and other officials from his office met with some project principals at the depot site Monday, July 18, 2011. Baker communicated then how the planned project differed from Historic Preservation standards.
"The first thing you do [in historic preservation of an old structure] is try not to move the building," Baker said that day. "The second thing you do [if a building must be moved] is try to make sure the sun rises and sets on it the same way."
In this case, several parties [the Georgia Department of Transportation, the Georgia Northeastern Railroad and Pickens County government] agree the depot must be moved. It presently sits on the shoulder of State Highway 53, one eave hanging over the roadway.
While the Historic Preservation office could accept the depot move, it could not accept drastic reorientation of the building on its new site as the plan called for at the time of Baker’s July 2011 inspection. The project temporarily halted at that point.
Next, Commissioner Jones assigned County Planning and Development Director Joey Low, a licensed engineer, to assess where the situation stood and move the project ahead.
"When I started working with it, I realized we had to do something a little different," Low said.
The initial project plan to move and restore the Tate Depot called for construction of a new addition to tee from the building's back. Historic Preservation voiced concerns about distinguishing the original part of the building from the new. That addition has now been removed from the plan, Low said.
The first plan also called for the moved depot to be reoriented at its new site, positioned diagonally to the railroad mainline. Baker has allowed a 22-degree rotation of the building from a truly parallel orientation to the railroad, but that is all the building can be turned, the commissioner explained.
Twenty-two degrees will rotate the depot until it is "kind of facing the [old] drugstore at Tate," Jones said. "Driving up [Highway] 53 there, you'll be kind of looking at the front of the depot." After the move of the railroad station, drivers will see the depot on the right side of the highway, upon driving toward Marble Hill, instead of on the left. Though the new plan preserves the previously designed basement addition under the depot's wood-floored freight room, the basement addition under the office and waiting room areas has been eliminated.
Doing away with that part of the basement allows for a poured slab floor in depot rooms where that type floor was an original element. The goal of the state Historic Preservation office is to preserve the building as close to its original look as possible.
"That's what they want," Low explained. "They want it as close to [how] it is now, just in a new location. We had a conference call with Dean Baker and worked all this out," Low said.
“It’s such a perfect depot,” Baker said while inspecting the railroad station’s interior in July 2011. “It’s like it’s been untouched.”
The Depot Project is to be funded with $800,000 of federal money made available through two transportation enhancement grants administered through the Georgia DOT. As this project deals with preservation of a historic building, DOT looks to the state Historic Preservation office to also give its blessing to the project before grant money flows.
"They've got the money. If you want the money, you've got to please them on how it's done," Low said. And right now that comes down to meeting the requirements of Georgia's Historic Preservation office, he explained. "If you don't please Dean Baker, it doesn't happen," Low said. County officials now believe they are approaching that goal.
"We're almost through with the redesign process and ready to move forward again," Jones said.
Low said local engineer Cleve Boutwell is working on a site preparation plan for ground set to receive the moved depot. Boutwell's site plan will soon ship to the project architect (Carter Watkins Associates) to be included in final project plans.
"At that point, we should have a complete set of plans that we can submit to the state," Low said. Approval of those plans by Georgia DNR's Historic Preservation Division and ultimately by Georgia DOT should unlock the project to go forward with funding from the two federal grants assigned for the project.
"That's what we're shooting for," Jones said.
The county's contribution to match those grants will amount to 20 percent of the total grant value. The county contribution will not be paid in cash but will go into the project as county-supplied grading and preparation of the new depot site prior to the depot move from its original location.
For now, Commissioner Jones has that grading work on hold until Baker fully approves new project plans and the prospective federal grants become solidly confirmed.
"I can't move dirt or do anything until Dean Baker blesses the project," Jones said. And Baker has to inspect the plans before he can bless them.
"Hopefully, within the next two weeks, they [state Historic Preservation and DOT] will have [the] plans to start reviewing them," Low said. He was uncertain how long state review of project plans might take but sounded optimistic. "Hopefully, if all goes well, we'll be breaking ground down there this summer some time," Low projected.
And that sounds like good news for a project that has been a slow train coming.