Nicholas Dickinson could have situated his architectural firm anywhere in the city. The area he chose, downtown, is becoming Augusta's trendiest office address.
"When you say Augusta, this is what people think of as Augusta," Mr. Dickinson said as he looked at the corner of Broad and Eighth streets through the large window of his conference room.
His company, Nicholas Dickinson & Associates, is one of several professional firms that has moved into the central business district during the past two years to tap into the energy of downtown revitalization efforts and create unique office environments in one-of-a-kind buildings.
The 3,000-square-foot building that Mr. Dickinson's company bought to house its eight employees was built in 1917 by Union Savings Bank. The limestone-clad Greek Revival building has marble floors, ornate crown molding and a skylight made of "catspaw" stained glass.
"We could have built our own building, but it would not be this building. You couldn't afford to do this today," Mr. Dickinson said. "In our opinion, this particular building has the most architectural character in Augusta."
Mr. Dickinson's firm moved in last March. Emergency management software developer ESi moved into its new offices at 823 Broad St. last month. The company spent more than $4 million renovating the 1920s-era building, the site of the National Exchange Bank, into what some say is the most high-tech office space in the city.
W.R. Toole Engineers moved into its new offices at 1005 Broad St., an all-brick, four-story building that the engineering firm gutted and rebuilt into office space for its 18 employees.
Like many of the companies opening downtown offices, Toole Engineers' decision was motivated by civic pride more than financial considerations.
"I believe it's the most vibrant place to be," said Rick Toole, the president.
Farther down the block, at 1015 Broad St., are the future headquarters for R.W. Allen & Associates, one of the region's largest general contractors. The company is expected to move from its current Highland Avenue offices to the 6,000-square-foot building in the spring.
"Everyone here said, 'Let's go downtown,' " company President Rick Allen said during a recent interview. "It is the civic thing to do."
Margaret Woodard, the director of the Downtown Development Authority, said the growth of the professional service sector is the latest stage in a downtown revival that artists, restaurateurs and small shopkeepers started nearly two decades ago.
"These things happen in cycles," she said. "We're now seeing the businesspeople coming back. We've got a lot of opportunity over the next 10 years."
Though downtown boasts many longtime corporate citizens and three of the market's largest office buildings -- The Lamar Building and the Wachovia and SunTrust towers, all three of which have undergone renovations in recent years -- most recent real estate investment has been directed in outlying areas. The last all-new, or "Class A," office building constructed downtown was the Augusta Riverfront Center in 1994.
"That's a long dry spell," said Harry Kitchen Jr., the president of The Foxfield Co., which is working on what will likely be the city's next all-new Class A office building.
The Bluffton, S.C., developer's $100 million Watermark condominium-hotel-retail project under construction along the riverfront between Fifth and Sixth streets will include a 60,000-square-foot midrise office building. The train depot on the property will be renovated into retail shops.
Mr. Kitchen said that he is in talks with a company that would be the office building's anchor tenant and that he needs about 40 percent of the building pre-leased before moving ahead with construction.
"I feel good about it at this point," he said. "We've had some very good conversations with potential tenants."
He said the building's aesthetic would be similar to the traditional brick-and-limestone architecture of the 52,000-square-foot Mulberry at Godley Station office complex his company developed last year in Savannah, Ga.
Mr. Kitchen said the Watermark project has the power to energize the central business district in the same way that the development of the Augusta Riverfront Center-Augusta Marriott Hotel & Suites complex did 15 years ago.
"This is a site that's important to the overall redevelopment of downtown," he said. "Imagine fast-forwarding a couple of years to the renovation of the depot, a residential component of 120 condos, two hotels and 60,000 square feet of Class A office space. What cumulative economic impact does that have on downtown?"
There are many challenges to developing office space downtown. Redeveloping a building, particularly one on Broad Street, can be a costly and time-consuming venture because many of the structures were not designed as office buildings.
"A lot of these buildings were literally just built for warehouse storage upstairs," said Chris Hitchcock, who owns 1019 Broad St., a building he is in the process of redeveloping into office and retail space.
Much of the renovation cost is tied up in bringing the turn-of-the-century structures into compliance with modern building codes, said Mr. Hitchcock, who co-owns online shoe retailer The Hitch-N-Post.
"When anybody buys one of these buildings, they're no longer grandfathered under the old codes," he said.
A renovation project requires companies to have much more creativity and patience than wjem building an office from the ground up.
The ESi project, for example, required months of meetings between architects, contractors and city building officials before construction work ever began.
The new Toole Engineers building required builders to construct off-square doors and walls in order to compensate for the building's uneven floors, which dip five inches from one end to the other.
In addition, $75,000 was spent on building a code-mandated fire escape.
Dickinson & Associates turned the former bank building's 26-foot-high ceilings, into two floors with 13-foot ceilings. Mr. Dickinson's firm is upstairs; the ground level is leased by SRP Federal Credit Union.
Companies must get creative to make their office projects work from a financial standpoint. Because rehabilitating older structures is so costly, office developers can't afford to acquire buildings at overinflated sales prices.
Officials and busincess leaders say downtown Augusta has long had a problem with absentee owners and real estate investors who won't renovate their properties or sell them at a fair market price.
"It will be interesting to see what happens now that more people are rehabbing buildings," Ms. Woodard said. "I have a feeling that a few local people will think their buildings are worth more than they are."
Mr. Dickinson said that he was fortunate to find a building at a fair price but fears that other companies interested in developing professional space downtown might not be so lucky. He said local authorities have been lax in code enforcement and tax assessment on the owners of vacant downtown buildings.
"If (government officials) were to enforce the rules, the owners of these abandoned buildings would be forced to renovate or sell," he said. "Otherwise, those buildings are going to remain vacant because you have some owners who truly don't care."
Part of Mr. Dickinson's office-renovation project included improvements to the nearly two dozen smaller office and retail units in the building's north end. He is confident they will be occupied because he believes a renaissance in downtown commerce is coming.
"We know its going to happen," he said. "We see it happening."
Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486 or email@example.com.
WATERMARK ON RIVERWALK
WHAT IT IS: A $100 million mixed-use development on 6.3 acres of riverfront property between Fifth and Sixth streets that will include 120 condominiums, two hotels, retail shops and a 60,000-square-foot office building
WHO'S DOING IT: The Foxfield Co., Bluffton, S.C.
WHEN WILL IT OPEN: Completion dates depend on when an anchor tenant can be found for the office building.
THE WHITE'S BUILDING
WHAT IT IS: A 51-unit condominium development under construction in the 80,000-square-foot former J.B. White department store on Broad Street. The ground floor of the four-story building will be available for office or retail space.
WHO'S DOING IT: Horizon Group Investments, Atlanta
WHEN WILL IT OPEN: Late 2008 or early 2009
R.W. ALLEN & ASSOCIATESWHAT IT IS: A renovation of the former David Slusky & Sons building at 1015 Broad St. into the headquarters for Augusta-based general contractor R.W. Allen & Associates. WHO'S DOING IT: R.W. Allen & Associates WHEN WILL IT OPEN: Late March or early April