Scuttlebiz: Big deals precede Masters Week

Augusta’s “week of the year” is here.

 

Depending on who you are and the business you’re in, Masters Week is often either manic or meandering. But for many locals – and for nearly every visitor checking into area hotels and rental homes – tournament time is vacation time.

Being a member of the press during the city’s biggest news event means that leaving town isn’t an option for me. But that suits me just fine – I’d rather be here when big stories break.

That hasn’t always been the case. I can think of more than a half-dozen major stories that coincided with my vacations in recent years. Big news just seems to break whenever I take a break.

For example, when James Brown died in 2006, I was in the middle of a weeklong sojourn to his old stomping grounds of New York. In 2007, I was on a beach in Panama City, Fla., when a botulism outbreak shut down Castleberry’s Food Co. And just last year when I was in Rome, the cradle of modern civilization, plans for Columbia County’s “downtown” – The Plaza at Evans Towne Center – were unveiled. I also missed Textron Specialized Vehicles’ announcement to expand into the former Procter &Gamble plant during that same Italy excursion.

So you can imagine the angst I felt two weeks ago when my smartphone started buzzing with emails about J.C. Penney store closings while I was sitting around a campfire in Fishtail, Mont. (Population 478 … SAAA-LUTE!). Fortunately, the company’s Augusta Mall store wasn’t among the 138 planned closures, and my Rocky Mountain high resumed posthaste.

Had the trip been scheduled a week later, I would have missed the biggest non-golf story of 2017 thus far, the proposed acquisition of Trinity Hospital of Augusta by the parent organization of University Hospital.

I also would have missed two other pretty big stories: MAU Workforce Solution’s acquisition of metro Atlanta-based FutureStaff and the planned purchase of the ammonium sulfate section of Augusta’s Fibrant LLC plant by an investment group, Augusta Sulfate Company LLC, which will save approximately 100 of the plant’s 600 jobs when Fibrant closes the chemical plant this fall.

The hospital deal, in particular, will have a major impact on one of the metro area’s primary industries: health care.

This past week Trinity’s majority owner, Tennessee-based Quorum Health Corp., announced plans to divest the struggling facility to the market’s largest health care provider in a deal expected to close June 30.

Though the acquisition will end the beloved Catholic-affiliated hospital’s 65-year run in Augusta, it will keep the 400-employee facility from being shuttered – which was the inevitable conclusion had nobody stepped in to purchase the more than 30-acre property off Wrightsboro Road.

A name for the new hospital hasn’t been identified yet, but you can bet it will have the words “university” and “hospital.”

With the exception of a few “negative side effects” (to use health care parlance) that occur during any corporate merger, this “big news” story also happens to be a “good news” story.

And that’s a good thing on the eve of what many people consider the best time of year in metro Augusta.

So enjoy yourself this week – wherever you are. You know where I’ll be.

 

BIG SKY, HIGH CEILING: I don’t want to bore you with tales from my aforementioned trip to Montana, but I did see a ferris wheel while I was there.

A full-sized one.

Inside a store.

On a five-cent tour of Billings, Mont., my great-niece recommended we stop at Scheels, a sporting goods store off Interstate 90. I had never heard of the chain, but I’m glad I stopped in because it was off the chain (kids still say that, right?).

I knew I was in for a treat when I saw sculptures of U.S. presidents outside and an arched 16,000-gallon saltwater aquarium inside the entrance to the megastore, which, at 220,000 square feet, is twice the size of any Walmart supercenter.

This is no store inside a mall – it’s a mall inside a store. There was a shooting gallery, a bowling alley, baseball and golfing simulators, hundreds of taxidermy displays and enough guns to supply the army of Costa Rica, if Costa Rica had an army, which, surprisingly, it does not.

Every one of the store’s 300 full-time employees I saw had a smile on their faces (probably because their average annual salary is $54,000 a year and they have stock in the employee-owned company) and greeted me with a hello, which I think they would have done even if I had visited during crowded peak-shopping hours.

Did I mention the ferris wheel?

 

MORE (OR LESS) IN STORE: The main reason I bring up a sports retailer whose 26 stores are nowhere near Georgia is because I’m lamenting the loss of Augusta’s Gander Mountain store that opened a little over two years ago on Mason McKnight Parkway, just a 3-iron inside Columbia County border.

The 54,000-square-foot store is one of 32 underperforming locations the St. Paul, Minn.-based company will cross off its list as it works through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing and the eventual sale of the company. A company spokesman told me this week “no specific date has been determined at this time” regarding the closing.

Another retailer with an Augusta presence, appliance dealer HHGregg Inc., also filed for bankruptcy protection last month. The Indianapolis-based chain is closing 88 stores nationwide – 40 percent of its entire retail portfolio – but the store at the Augusta Exchange shopping center was not on the list.

The Augusta Exchange, which turns 20 later this year, appears to be rebounding, with the addition of two new restaurants, a Chipotle Mexican Grill and a MOD Pizza in a soon-to-be-constructed building in the Target parking lot and a new Burlington store to fill the 44,000-square-foot space left vacant by Sports Authority three years ago.

Gander Mountain, by the way, agreed this week to a “stalking horse bid” with two asset management firms specializing in liquidations while it continues discussions with “a number of interested parties” in an attempt to say afloat. A stalking horse bid – which I’m not embarrassed to admit having to look up – is to establish a price for a company’s assets prior to auction.

The company said it hopes to complete a sale by May 15. Perhaps Fargo, N.D.-based Scheels will move into the Augusta store?

On second thought, I don’t think the building is big enough.

 

MEANWHILE, OVER AT CABELA’S: Do you have a “lightly used” fishing reel you’d like to trade in for a new one? Take it to the Augusta Cabela’s store between April 6-9 and they’ll not only give you 20 percent off a new reel, but they’ll donate your old one to the Clarks Hill Fish for Life Foundation, a youth-focused local charity. The store also will have a free “Kids Casting Clinic” at 11 a.m. on April 8 and 9.

 

TRAFFIC TROUBLE?: Traffic on Washington Road near the National Hills Shopping Center is no picnic – even when the Masters Tournament isn’t in town. Especially since the realignment of Berckmans Road essentially eliminated the north-south corridor into the shopping center, which is essentially what the old Berckmans Road was.

Getting in and out of the property has become more difficult and the center’s main retail tenant, The Fresh Market, appears to be feeling the pain, with local store employees reportedly telling customers the store may close.

However, the North Carolina-based company asserts the store isn’t going anywhere.

“The realignment has made access to the store challenging, but it does not deter The Fresh Market’s commitment to the community,” company spokeswoman Stephanie Lowder said in a statement, adding that the company is “not scouting any other areas for development in Augusta.”

Randy Young, the company’s senior vice president of real estate and development, also said there are no plans to relocate the 23,000-square-foot store.

“Although the changes to the local road network has impacted access to our location, we will continue our efforts to provide our guests with high-quality food offerings and outstanding service,” he said.

Seven years remain on The Fresh Market’s lease at the nearly 160,000-square-foot center, according to marketing materials posted by the property’s local leasing agent, Augusta-based Southeastern Development Associates.

“National Hills has been the market’s oldest and most successful specialty grocery anchored center with over 25 years of operating history,” it said. “The recent closing of Whole Foods down the road will help continue this successful run and help to get sales back in line to where they were three years ago at The Fresh Market.”

 

CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM?: Locals trying to develop a site for a proposed south Augusta Aldi store on the 1¼-acre parcel formerly occupied by the Ryan’s buffet at 3034 Peach Orchard Road could be hitting a snag.

The grocery chain is reportedly seeking a “curb cut” in the median in front of the property to allow left-turn access into the property. Trouble is, Peach Orchard Road is part of the state-federal highway system, which generally doesn’t change roadways to accommodate a single business.

The project is still winding its way through the local planning and zoning process, but appears to be in a holding pattern because of the street-access issue.

Thom Behtz, a vice president for Aldi’s local region, said there are “no updates to share at this time” regarding what would be its fourth Augusta-area store.

“We continue to work through the approval process for our future store on Peach Orchard Road,” he said.

 

DRINK LOCAL: Just in time for Masters Week, those evil geniuses over at Fruitland Augusta, distillers of Prosper J. Berckmans-inspired peach-flavored booze, have teamed up with area bars and restaurants to create a citywide drinking tour called “Augusta’s 18 Watering Holes.”

The libations available include the “Pink Flamingo” at Rae’s Coastal Cafe, the “Augustan Martini” at Cucina 503 and the “Firethorn” at Craft &Vine.

The Firethorn, named for the easiest hole on the course, No. 15, is made with fresh tangerine juice, muddled basil and “a healthy dose of Fruitland Augusta Peach Vodka” along with a dash of house-made jalapeño bitters as a “gentle reminder to always keep it in the fairway.”

 

CAN I CRASH HERE TONIGHT?: More than 2,200 homes, apartments and rooms are being rented out during Masters Week through Airbnb, the web-based home-sharing service. That’s impressive, not just because the figure is 50 percent more volume than last year’s Masters Week, but because it is roughly three-quarters of all Augusta Airbnb volume during 2016.

Yes, Augusta’s “week of the year” is here.

 

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3352 or damon.cline@augustachronicle.com

 

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