A Georgia Main Street Paved in Red Carpet
BY: Robbie Brown for The New York Times
Unlike so many recession-weary towns, Senoia has a bustling Main Street. Dozens of new stores have opened, including a sushi bar, an antiques vendor and an Irish pub. City Hall has been repainted with money from the soaring tax revenues.
The reason? Filmmaking.
This is the quaint, small town that plays a quaint, small town on television and in the movies. Hollywood filmmakers come here when they need a Mayberry backdrop or a row of mom-and-pop storefronts. The community of 3,300 people, 25 miles south of Atlanta, has been the site of 24 shows and movies, from current hits like “The Walking Dead” and “Drop Dead Diva” to Southern classics like “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Driving Miss Daisy.”
With film crews bringing in money and publicity, Senoia (pronounced sen-OY) has avoided the empty downtowns and shrinking tax bases that plague many rural towns. The population has nearly doubled since 2000. Property tax revenues have risen even though the city has lowered its tax rate and the fact that Georgia, over all, has among the nation’s highest foreclosure rate.
“It has been like turning on a fire hose of cash,” said Scott Tigchelaar, the president of Raleigh Studios Atlanta, a division of an international production company.
Senoia did not lure Hollywood on its own. Georgia lawmakers helped, passing lucrative tax credits for filmmakers and promoting the state’s cheap labor costs, few unions and access to the world’s busiest airport, in Atlanta. The money brought into the state through filming — including music videos and television commercials and other projects — has soared to $879 million from $260 million in 2008.
No city took advantage of the Georgia filmmaking bonanza as much as Senoia. The first movie made here was “Driving Miss Daisy,” which was released in 1989, and a movie or television show has been filmed nearly each year since, including “Sweet Home Alabama” in 2002, “Meet the Browns” in 2008 and “Footloose” in 2011.
By far the biggest project has been “The Walking Dead,” the hit zombie show on AMC that is the highest-rated drama of all time on basic cable channels. In the current season, Senoia plays the fictional town of Woodbury, Ga., a heavily armed haven for zombie survivors. Last season, most of the filming was done at a farm outside town.
Much of life in the real town revolves around the zombie show. Main Street was closed to traffic for 30 days this summer and fall for filming. The city stopped mowing its grass to appear post-apocalyptic. Fake buildings for a bank, travel agency, law firm and bookstore were so realistic that some customers tried to walk in.
Senoia does not charge filmmakers who come to town, but it makes money in other ways. Cast and crew members dine, shop and sometimes live here. Raleigh Studios employs as many as 250 people. And store owners say profits rise by up to 30 percent during filming.
Tourists have come from around the world. Self-proclaimed Walker Stalkers hover off the set for cast members. Keith Boldt, a truck driver from nearby Newnan, Ga., has stayed up until 4 a.m. to watch key scenes being filmed. “You get the spoilers before they air,” he said. “I’ve met almost every cast member who hasn’t been killed off yet.”
To foster tourism, the city built a replica of Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, with gold plaques honoring locally made films. Soon there will be a trolley-car tour of the filming sites.
Senoia’s slogan (“The perfect setting. For life.”) clarifies that it is a small town doubling as a movie and television set, and not vice versa. But the attention can be overwhelming.
“It feels like living on a film set,” said Todd Baggarly, owner of Founders Restaurant, whose great-great-grandfather founded the town in 1860. “One of the biggest cable shows in history films on one block of a small town in Georgia, and it happens to be our town.”
Not long ago, Senoia looked like most hard-hit rural towns. There were only seven stores on Main Street in 2006, compared with 49 today.
The largest landowner is Senoia Enterprises, a development company run by Mr. Tigchelaar of Raleigh Studios. Since 2006, his company has bought and restored more than half of the stores downtown. Using an architecture firm that specializes in historical renovations, the company has rebuilt bars, restaurants and shops as they might have looked in the late 19th century.
The result is a Norman Rockwell setting for the newly rich. Zac Brown, the country music star, owns a restaurant and concert space. There are 4,000-square-foot brownstones with elevators and five bedrooms that sell for $500,000. Developers are also planning a hotel. The goal is to attract empty-nesters from Atlanta and its wealthy suburbs who are drawn by the simplicity of small-town living, with a Hollywood twist.
“We like to say we’re 25 miles and 100 years from Atlanta,” Mr. Tigchelaar said.
Not everyone in town shares that vision. “It’s a double-edged sword,” said Wayne Peavy, the owner of an antiques store. “It’s good for business. But it’s not the small town I moved to.”
Others are embracing the changes. Mr. Baggarly has installed Hollywood props at his restaurant: a white reindeer from “The Chronicles of Narnia” film series overlooks the bar, and a bazooka fired by Patrick Swayze is mounted on the wall. “We’re buying velvet ropes,” he said. “And of course, there will be a red carpet.”
Originally Published on The New York Times
Written By: Robbie Brown. Published: December 2, 2012.
A version of this article appeared in print on December 3, 2012, on page A14 of the New York edition with the headline: A Georgia Main Street Paved in Red Carpet.
View online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/03/us/a-georgia-main-street-paved-in-red-carpet.html?ref=todayspaper&_r=2&