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Posted: December 1, 2008 5:00 a.m.

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Blue Willow Village open for business

Social Circle leaders express high hopes

Under a bright blue sky in Social Circle Thursday afternoon, assorted local officials and business men and women gathered to celebrate the official ribbon-cutting of one of the largest tourism projects to come to the East Atlanta Metro area – the Blue Willow Village.

Owners Louis and Billie Van Dyke first had the idea for the village four years ago. Construction on the village, which currently houses a creationist and natural history museum and three shops, began a year-and-a-half ago.

"We want the village to be a continuation of the fact that Christians can operate a business without beating the drums," said Louis Van Dyke of the conception of the Blue Willow Village, which does not allow the sale of any "pornographic" or "obscene" items.

Funding for the Blue Willow Village comes from a combination of public and private sources. The Georgia Department of Community Affairs, One Georgia, the Georgia Cities Foundation and the Georgia Governor’s Office provided $800,000 in low-interest loans. The remaining financing for the estimated $3 million project came from the Van Dykes and from a commercial loan from Wachovia.

"This is a good combination of efforts between the private and public sector," Van Dyke said.

The opening of the Blue Willow Village had been postponed several times in part by a number of tenants backing out of lease agreements. Van Dyke said he had three tenants back out in the last six weeks over fears on the health of the economy.

"We’ve got faith that things will go well and that we will fill the shops," Van Dyke said.

The businesses that have opened include the Joseph Hurt Creationist and Natural History Museum (formally of Stone Mountain), an accompanying gift shop, a Georgia Originals store and a 1950s style soda fountain and diner. Another shop called Lady Di’s House of Stones is expected to open soon.

"We wanted tenants that would both be interesting to locals and tourist people," Van Dyke said.

While the Blue Willow Inn, famous nationally for its southern cuisine, already attracts approximately 200,000 visitors a year, the Georgia Department of Economic Development estimates that the village will increase tourism to Social Circle by another 150,000 visitors.

"This will have a direct impact on two counties," said Georgia. Sen. John Douglas (R-Social Circle) of the Blue Willow Village’s anticipated economic impact on Walton and Newton counties.

The Blue Willow Village was designed by architect Greg Dechko of MEG Building Consultants Inc. of Lawrenceville and constructed by Sunbelt Builders of Covington, which built each of the shell cottages and enlarged the Blue Willow’s parking lot to include more than 300 parking spaces.

"Using Sunbelt Builders … has made this project enormously pleasant with very little concern on my part," Van Dyke said.

Van Dyke said there are plans to build out the village even more, adding two more cottages (there are currently nine shops) with space for four additional stores. The new cottages will be styled after the Gingerbread House model that was made famous in Savannah.

"I really think the stars are beginning to line up in are community," said Social Circle Mayor Jim Burgess. "This is just the beginning of something that I think will be truly great for the citizens of Social Circle. Believe me, we’re just getting started."

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