Scuttlebiz: Which direction is Fort Gordon office growth headed?

Stockbrokers are quick to say “past performance is no guarantee of future results.” But if they asked clients to invest in Fort Gordon, the disclosure would be unnecessary.

 

That’s because the base is one “stock” whose price-appreciation is virtually assured, and whose future dividends will be steady.

As the front-line nerve center for the 21st century battlefield, our military installation is as close to an economic “sure thing” as it gets.

In addition to drawing thousands of active-duty servicemembers and civilian employees here to work in its expanding cybersecurity and intelligence facilities, Gordon is expected to attract scores of military contractors, vendors and suppliers to offices throughout the region.

But where in the region, exactly?

The answer isn’t militarily vital (the base will do its job no matter what) but it’s extremely important from a geopolitical/economic standpoint – whatever section of this metro area offers early arrivals the most fertile ground will control where metro Augusta’s nascent cyber-industrial complex takes root.

Wherever those companies sprout up – be it downtown Augusta, Gordon Highway, Bobby Jones Expressway or Columbia County – you can expect the surroundings to soar like shares of Dell in 1998.

There are a handful of local concentrations of cyber- and intel-related firms, but no definitive cluster to speak of. Certainly nothing resembling the glistening city of offices outside the gates of Fort Meade, Md., home of the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense intelligence arm that – for the time being – is joined at the hip to U.S. Cyber Command, to which Fort Gordon’s Army Cyber Command reports.

Gordon is growing in size and gravitas; it will be a three-star installation by 2020 and possibly a combatant command headquarters. The more money the Pentagon throws at the base, the more companies will line up at the gates to get a piece.

Gordon and Meade are the only two Army bases actually expanding right now. Meade’s growth spurt started a decade ago when the Defense Department got really serious about cyber. More than 6 million square feet of class A office space has been built outside Meade in an area known as Annapolis Junction, and more is added every year.

Says the Washington Post: “As Fort Meade rapidly morphs from a more traditional Army base into the latest high-tech hub, the formerly modest, blue-collar area surrounding it is turning into a new cyber city. An area once served by a strip of liquor stores and lounges is giving way to the more upscale apartments, retail and dining favored by highly educated – and well-paid – cyber and intelligence workers.”

That paragraph was published in Oct. 2013, just two months before the Pentagon said it would move Army Cyber here. Substitute “Gordon” for “Meade” and you get an idea of what’s coming in 2020 and beyond.

The most logical location for a local Annapolis Junction would be just north of the base, close to Interstates 20 and 520. Prime spots would appear to be near the base’s two main entrances: Gate 1, where Jimmie Dyess Parkway terminates; and the soon-to-be-built Gate 6, where a nifty new “access control point” will take in copious amounts of traffic just west of Grovetown’s main drag, Robinson Avenue.

The only thing making the northside less-than-ideal is that a lot of acreage has been haphazardly chewed up by subdivisions and shopping centers. It’s not a stretch, then, to see why Columbia County officials appear excited by the prospect of a possible Interstate 20 interchange at Old Louisville Road, which would create a major connection point to the base through a mostly undeveloped section between Grovetown and Harlem.

“That is huge for Columbia County,” Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross remarked at the county Chamber of Commerce and Development Authority’s “State of the Community Address” on Sept. 21. “That opens up an entirely new corridor that is now rural land that can be developed and give instant – almost instant – access to Fort Gordon from Interstate 20.”

Given that property adjacent to the proposed exit is owned by some in-the-know folks – including the family of Harlem Mayor Bobby Culpepper and former State Sen. Don Cheeks (a former vice-chairman of the Transportation Committee) – the exit request has been anticipated for a while.

But a cyber/intel-centric office cluster doesn’t require a greenfield site. There already is a sizable number of contractors, including heavy hitters such as Raytheon and Booz Allen Hamilton, operating in office buildings in the Wheeler Road/Bobby Jones/Perimeter Parkway area on the periphery of the Doctors Hospital campus. The latest addition to that cluster was announced just this past week by Sherman & Hemstreet, which sublet space at the University of Phoenix campus to LNO Inc., a small IT firm that apparently has outgrown its space near the Martinez Postal Complex.

Downtown Augusta also is in play. Unisys – the global company that essentially runs the Army’s IT “help desk” – houses more than 300 people in the former Discovery Plaza space along the Savannah River. Its Googlesque office is just a stone’s throw from the future Hull McKnight Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center and within walking distance of software companies such as TaxSlayer, Mealviewer, RSI and Zapata Technologies. It’s also less than a mile from the Augusta Cyberworks complex, a work-in-progress mixed-use office/residential complex at the former Sibley and King textile mills.

The ambitious $150 million-$200 million Cyberworks project currently houses Augusta IT firm EDTS and a satellite campus for UMBC Training Centers (a University of Maryland Baltimore affiliate that offers cybersecurity training) but hopes to attract others using the property’s unique architecture and proposed 20-megawatt data center as an incentive.

For redevelopment potential, one can’t dismiss blighted shopping centers along and near major corridors in south and west Augusta. Such properties already are tied into existing road and utility networks. I would think a prime candidate for redevelopment is the Augusta West Plaza at the northwest corner of Wrightsboro Road and Bobby Jones Expressway, whose vacant square footage hit 200,000 when anchor tenant Burlington moved to the Augusta Exchange last month.

Last but not least is a dilapidated shopping center off Gordon Highway whose occupancy rate is zero. It was called Regency Mall.

 

BOB’S BIG IDEA: Of course, the Regency property – for the time being – is spoken for: The Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority has picked it as the future site of James Brown Arena in August.

I’ve already ranted about how moving the entertainment venue from downtown’s thriving entertainment district is a Hindenburg of an idea, so I won’t belabor the point.

However, I would like to know the “plan” – assuming there is one – for the other half of the site that wouldn’t be occupied by the proposed 39-acre arena, as well as the adjacent to 46-acres of city owned property (36 of which is virgin land).

Bob Trescott is curious, too.

If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he was an economic developer in the city’s Housing and Urban Development Department. He’s since created a marketing firm, MarketSquare Solutions, and is investing in Olde Town real estate.

The Baltimore native believes Regency’s future could, and should, be high-tech. He’s blogged extensively about marketing the site as a private-sector innovation complex akin to the Netherlands’ High Tech Campus Eindhoven, a research-and-development cluster some consider the smartest place on earth.

With generous incentives, a little foresight from city leaders and cooperation from the property owner, Trescott said the corner of Gordon Highway and Deans Bridge Road could “be an incredible campus like the one in the Netherlands.”

Trescott said if the arena actually ends up at Regency site, it shouldn’t be considered the primary attraction.

“I’m not being totally dismissive (of the arena proposal) because the JBA could be part of the mix,” Trescott said. “It wouldn’t be a major part, but an adjunct part.”

 

SO MUCH FOR ‘NOT BELABORING THE POINT’: With no logical reason for moving the city’s main entertainment venue out of its cultural epicenter, the Regency Rooters™ have latched on to the downtown site’s two main drawbacks: lack of parking and distance from major thoroughfares.

For certain people, those are valid concerns. And by “certain people” I mean aging locals accustomed to parking wherever they darn well please. For as long as they want. For free.

Others? Not so much.

Face it: civic centers have a multi-decade lifespan. This 10,000-seat arena is not targeted so much at people my age and older, but the Uber generation and their children.

Even if the region’s transportation habits never change, is this city not smart enough to make an arena work downtown, as 63 percent of other cities have done?

We probably just need to think outside the box. That often works in places that try it.

Here’s an example: This past weekend I took a rare trip to Atlanta so my wife could buy an ottoman named POÄNG at a 366,000-square-foot megastore. We also bought some wine glasses named IRVIG at this furniture store, which was shoehorned into a mere 14-acre tract.

There were more bodies in this big-box retailer on a Sunday afternoon than I’ve ever seen at James Brown Arena. And shoppers at this store like to dawdle; many even stick around to eat meatballs in the cafeteria.

What should’ve been a traffic and logistical nightmare wasn’t, despite the store’s relative lack of surface parking and only one entrance/exit in its 1,500-space parking deck.

Now let’s look at James Brown Arena. Using a GIS system, my corner-to-corner measurement of the building gives me roughly 94,000 square feet of space, a generous figure considering usable square footage is much less. According to the $142,000 taxpayer-funded study that JBA-at-Regency supporters choose to disregard, there are 1,139 parking spaces on nearly 18 acres of coliseum authority-owned property. In a three block radius, there are nearly 3,000 more spaces.

So do the math: Even if JBA doubled in size downtown, it would still be only two-thirds the size of the Atlanta megastore, yet have 4 more acres and 2,500 more parking spaces to work with.

If this city can’t figure out a way to make those numbers work, it needs to get out of the regional entertainment business. All this number crunching, of course, assumes the JBA site-selection process was objective – not political.

By the way, the Swedish word for extortion is “utpressning.”

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THE MUD CLUB: What would I do with the Regency property if it were mine? So glad you asked: off-road adventure park.

I’m dead serious.

If you haven’t noticed, lots of folks around here own Jeeps, jacked-up 4X4 pickups and other rugged-looking vehicles. Some of these mall crawlers would actually like to get off the pavement, but their options can be somewhat limited.

The solution: Damon’s Dirty South Off-Road Park.

This 72-acre playground is where everyone from a Range Rover anglophile to a Dodge Ram redneck can run wild. After they sign the Dirty South liability waiver and, ahem, let one of our friendly staffers see their license and valid proof of insurance.

Would a playground for big-boy toys be the “highest and best use”of this property? Probably not. But it’d be an improvement over what it is now and – unlike an underutilized public arena – would actually turn a profit and contribute to the economy.

The Regency property already boasts 2 acres of ponds, allowing Dirty South patrons to prove those engine snorkle tubes aren’t just props. The cost of creating this off-road paradise – a rock-crawling course, a 60-degree hill climb, ATV/dirtbike track, etc. – would be minimal. A few bulldozers, a little imagination (and bank financing) is all that’s needed.

Heck, most of the fill material could come from the property itself. Remember those “Built Ford Tough!” commercials from the 1980s? The one where the F-150 climbs a giant mountain of cinder blocks? Well, there are an awful lot of cinder blocks at Regency Mall.

Those bricks turn turn 40 next year. I can’t think of a better birthday present than to make them useful again.

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FOUR-LOW TO HIGH-BROW: Who says the “arts” don’t have an economic impact?

According to the Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau and Augusta Sports Council’s latest visitor report, the 10th annual Westobou Festival will generate more than $1.2 million in direct visitor spending from the approximately 13,200 visitors during the festival’s run through Oct. 14. That’s roughly one-quarter of all visitor spending tracked by the organizations for the month of October.

The next biggest tourism draw for the month was the FamilyLife Ministries’ 2017 Weekend to Remember conference, whose 900 attendees are estimated to put more than $400,000 into the local economy.

By the way, if you want to learn about how public art (something that is currently lacking in Augusta) can be an economic development tool, you’ll want to register for the upcoming Porter Fleming Public Art Symposium on Oct. 17 by contacting the Greater Augusta Arts Council.

The event will feature Patricia Walsh, the public art programs manager for Americans for the Arts, the nation’s main arts advocacy organization. I’ve heard she’s kind of a big deal.

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

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