Lewis, a developer and retired lawyer, has spent more than 20 years restoring buildings throughout the historic downtown Cartersville district. His work was recognized Sunday as he was presented the Renaissance Award by the Georgia Cities Foundation at the annual Georgia Municipal Association Convention.
"John Lewis' footprint can be seen all over downtown Cartersville," said Georgia Cities Foundation President Mike Starr in a press release. "His hard work in the areas of historic preservation and downtown development has helped transform a once sleepy downtown Cartersville to a shopping, dining and cultural destination."
Over the last 10 years, Lewis has revitalized more than 25 percent of the buildings within the downtown business district, creating more than 100 new jobs in the process.
Dianne Tate, city of Cartersville councilman and member of the Etowah Valley Historical Society, led the effort to nominate Lewis with help from city of Cartersville Communication and Public Relations Manager Rebecca Bohlander.
"It was time to make sure John Lewis was honored for what he has done for our city," Tate said. "A city can't do what private investment can do, so we are extremely lucky.
"I thought the number of buildings that John has done in the city of Cartersville really deserved to be honored."
The award application included collages of before-and-after pictures showing the transformation of more than 30 buildings. He was praised by the city for his vision, recruiting specific businesses to create a vibrant downtown.
"John Lewis has single-handedly transformed the downtown with quality restaurants, unique gifts shops and boutiques, office buildings and services. The renovation of the Church Street area known as 'Under the Bridge' was funded by Mr. John Lewis and created an amazing shopping and dining destination. He restored the historic black box Legion Theatre, which seats 80 persons. An art gallery is now housed in one of his buildings and features 50 regional artists, just to name a few projects," stated the application. "With these vital shops and restaurants, has come increased tourism for the downtown business district as the downtown has become a shopping, dining and cultural destination."
The process began when Lewis stopped practicing law and found a new passion in restoration and preservation.
"As you go through life, you kind of transition from one thing to another. I practiced law downtown since 1970, then I retired in '86, and when I retired, I guess I was looking for something to do and I was able to buy some of these buildings with other people," Lewis said. "I like to preserve old things and I like old brick buildings. It's quite amazing, you can take one of these buildings that don't look too good and strip off all the additions they made over the years trying to modernize the buildings -- lo and behold underneath that there's pretty floors and pretty ceilings. When you get into that, it's hard not to do it if you can find the buildings at a reasonable price."
He described his efforts downtown as a "balancing act." Finding the right price on a property ensures the ability to renovate and maintain reasonable rental rates. Lewis also balances a mix of retail, restaurants and residential.
The application made special note of his work to bring loft apartments into downtown Cartersville. Lewis worked with local government to create a loft apartment ordinance to pave the way for residential spaces. He now owns seven lofts in downtown Cartersville.
"Some of these buildings kind of lend themselves to loft living," Lewis said. "The main thing is, it adds people downtown and that's what we need. We need residences in the proximity of downtown to walk to the restaurants and the bars and the shops and things.
"I've got more demand for lofts than I do anything else right now; I've probably got a waiting list of six or eight people for loft apartments right now."
Although his past accomplishments have changed the face of downtown Cartersville, Lewis has yet to hang up his hat when it comes to revitalizing distressed properties. His most recent acquisition is the Bandy building at the corner of Cook and Erwin streets. The 47,000-square-foot facility was once home to Bartow Textiles, at one time the largest tufted-textile mill in the country. Lewis' vision has the building transformed into a multi-use facility with loft apartments, retail shops, restaurants and commercial outlets.