The Mars Theater District in LaFayette, Georgia is soon to be renovated and aesthetically enhanced as new owner Robert Wardlaw hopes to turn the old movie theater and surrounding array of storefronts into a local, and possibly regional, destination.
“We see the entire district as a destination for entertainment, dining, art and commerce,” said Wardlaw, who recently bought the property on Chattanooga Street with cousin Robert “Buzz” Law. “We are confident it can be. It will require tender, loving care and dedication, and we have both things.”
The investors have family roots in the town where the Wardlaw family owned and operated the LaFayette Coca-Cola bottling plant for 80 years. Law’s mother, Louellen Wardlaw Law, is the sister of Wardlaw’s father.
According to an old photo, the Mars Theater opened in 1931, Wardlaw said, and he believes it closed sometime in the late 1950s. The former cinema was destroyed by fire in 2011, and businessman Mike Lovelady began revitalizing it and seven of the adjacent storefronts in downtown – an area he called the Mars Theater District – the following year.
“I think it was time for the next phase of this development,” said Wardlaw of his and Law’s decision to buy the property. “We have great faith in the city of LaFayette and its commitment to growth and we believe in the region.”
Although Wardlaw serves as Walker County’s director of economic development, his co-acquisition of the property is a private investment, he said.
The original goal of the new owners is to improve the aesthetics of the properties, renovate each room and make it an attractive hangout for locals before attempting to turn it into a travel destination.
“LaFayette, and Walker County in general, are poised for a place where people can gather, socialize, eat and chat,” said Wardlaw. “Lots of people in LaFayette travel out of town for these experiences and if we can create a warm and welcoming experience it certainly won’t stop people from leaving town, but it will be a viable alternative in the city where we are everyone feels comfortable when we gather together. “
Newly owned LaFayette, Georgia’s Mars Theater District
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Wardlaw envisions the Mars Theater, which has been the venue for the community theater group Back Alley Productions for several years and which offers a variety of entertainment options year round. His plans include further renovations and expansions of the theater seating. There are currently 48 seats with capacity for more, although he doesn’t know exactly how many.
Other companies already operating in the district include the Station House Restaurant and a local CPA company.
Across the street from Station House is the former Eagle Hotel, a two-story brick building that sits right on the old railway line and which Wardlaw believes has many uses.
The first store to move in will be its own, a grill restaurant called Wardlaws Lucky Eye Q on the southern end of the district. Wardlaw said he previously sold his grill to support various causes and the restaurant’s opening is the first time he has sold it for a profit.
He sees the support of the local government and patrons as key to the district’s success.
“These types of projects are almost always most successful when it comes to leadership engagement and private investment and development, and that appears to be the case here,” said Wardlaw.
LaFayette Mayor Andy Arnold said the city was in the process of expanding its official downtown development area, which is now down Highway 27 from South Main Street to Marsh House towards the Mars Theater District on Chattanooga Street and into West Patton Street leads. This will allow the urban development agency to raise funds such as grants or soft loans to improve these areas, he said.
“It’s part of the downtown development,” Arnold said of the Mars Theater District. “Robert has been a long-time friend of my family and it is just exciting for him to foresee the good that the city is doing and developing in the city and investing in the city.”
Contact Emily Crisman at 423-309-3071 or firstname.lastname@example.org.