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Posted: January 17, 2012 9:22 p.m.

Blue Willow owner excited about future

Donald Poss may have saved the Blue Willow.

Billie Van Dyke, the Blue Willow Inn Restaurant's owner, said the Good Hope farmer and land owner's purchase, which will not close until Friday, brings the iconic restaurant closer to emerging from bankruptcy.

"He's my knight in shining armor," she said. "By buying the property and the Village in the back, I'm able to run the front without the financials on my shoulders."

Van Dyke said her customers have rallied since the Blue Willow filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in July 2010. Even with the economy still struggling, they have helped to buoy the 20-year-old restaurant, which has weathered the recent economic storms with its doors open to a loyal base.

"They've gotten behind me and rallied behind me," she said. "They keep saying, ‘The Blue Willow can't close!' It's exciting to see how people rally."

Van Dyke and Poss said they hope to open Lou's Soda Fountain and Grille on the site, in honor of Louis Van Dyke, who passed away in November 2010. In the near future, they said an antique shop may open to cater to the Blue Willow's guests.

"My customer base, when they come on the tour buses, that's what they look for, antique places to go into," Van Dyke said.

Since it opened in 1991, the Blue Willow Inn Restaurant has become an institution in Social Circle, garnering national attention for its home cooked, buffet Southern dinners served in an elegantly decorated manor.

Just as the Blue Willow was about to expand with the opening of retail space and a museum behind the historic mansion on North Cherokee Street, the housing bubble burst and a financial crisis sent the economy into a tailspin.

Many of the businesses planning to open in the retail space, called the Blue Willow Village, pulled out, leaving the Willow's owners, Louis and Billie Van Dyke, with a mountain of debt and no tenants. In 2010, the Blue Willow filed for bankruptcy.

"The restaurant has always done well," said newly elected Mayor Hal Dally. "It was unfortunate they chose to build the village in the back and the downturn in the economy occurred at the same time.

"It was bad timing. I'm glad they separated the real estate from the restaurant. It'll give Billie the chance to do what she does best, and that's operate the Blue Willow Inn."

After a year in bankruptcy, the Willow, with the assistance of business turnaround consultant J. D. Holmes, submitted a plan in August to emerge from bankruptcy with the restaurant's doors still open.

That plan hinged on Van Dyke selling about seven acres of land, including the mansion the restaurant calls home and the new retail village, and using the proceeds to pay down a significant portion of the Willow's debt.

Poss said he looked at the property more than a year ago and eventually decided to purchase it. A federal bankruptcy judge in Macon approved the sale last week and it is scheduled to close Friday. As part of the deal, the Blue Willow Inn Restaurant will enter into a long term lease with Poss, so the restaurant will remain in business.

"We're going to do everything we can to keep the Blue Willow open," Poss said.

Dally said the Blue Willow, and the possibility of businesses in the retail space behind it, are a major draw to the city.

"The Blue Willow is very important to Social Circle," he said. "It brings in 200,000 to 250,000 visitors to the city a year."

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