Scuttlebiz: Chronicle entering bold new era under GateHouse Media

If you’re a frequent reader of this column, you know I devote the space to information and analysis about other people’s businesses and industries.

 

But with the big news this past week involving the sale of this newspaper, I find myself stepping into unfamiliar territory. So please bear with me.

First, let me disclose the vast majority of my two and a half decades in journalism has been spent at The Augusta Chronicle, one of the 11 daily newspapers and non-daily publications Augusta-based Morris Publishing Group is selling to GateHouse Media in October.

Needless to say, “The South’s Oldest Newspaper” has been a major part of my professional career and has left an indelible imprint on the fabric of my life. So much so that when I came back in 2014 – following a nearly five-year stint in the public relations business – walking into the News Building at 725 Broad St. was like returning from a long holiday weekend.

Stepping into the office the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 9, however, was a day like no other.

There’s no need to recount the details of the pending acquisition; it already has been widely reported in this newspaper and countless others. Additionally, the GateHouse chain is part of a New York Stock Exchange-traded company, New Media Investment Group, so there’s plenty of public information at your fingertips.

There’s also no need for a dissertation on why the deal is necessary. Unless you’ve been holed up in an off-the-grid shack, you know digital technology has altered how people obtain news and information, and that those same technologies are negatively impacting the businesses that have historically supported traditional media.

Broadcasters face the same problem. They just get less attention because their local operations are smaller to begin with and – no offense to my broadcast friends – their journalistic standards aren’t as high. Most of the content you consume digitally, whether you realize it or not, was mined by a nameless, faceless daily newspaper reporter somewhere in America.

The one thing media professionals of all stripes can agree on is that a free society cannot exist without a free and robust press.

That bears repeating because – once you peel back the pending transaction’s accounting complexities and legalese – journalistic preservation is at the heart of the Morris-GateHouse deal.

In today’s media landscape, Morris Publishing Group realized it no longer had the size and scale to continue providing its communities with the level of information its citizens deserve. And that was something William S. “Billy” Morris III, a lifelong fighter for the First Amendment, could not allow to happen in his hometown.

“The people of this community, and all the communities that we serve, need good local journalism,” he said during a Wednesday morning conference call with employees. “Somebody has got to do that. That job is just as important as that done by doctors and lawyers and other professionals throughout our community. What we do is essential to this community to its betterment, to our nation, and to a free people.”

Morris, the chairman of the publishing group’s parent company and the longtime publisher of The Chronicle, noted the sale was “bittersweet” but “the right thing to do.”

“It’s the right thing to do for all of you,” he told employees. “This company (GateHouse) has the muscle, it has the capital, it has the span, it has the scope to carry this newspaper up to another level.”

The Morris family, starting with Billy’s father, has been involved in newspaper journalism for 88 years. That heritage was not lost on GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis when he took center stage in the News Building’s auditorium to address company employees.

“Can you even possibly imagine how humbling this is?” he said. “I’m not sure you could.”

Davis’ visit made it clear the companies trust and respect each other. In 2007, when Morris decided to sell 14 of its mostly Midwest daily newspapers, it was GateHouse who emerged as the preferred suitor.

The upstate New York-based company’s portfolio of 130 daily newspapers includes The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer and The Spartanburg (S.C.) Herald Journal as well as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune and The Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News.

“I can honestly tell you when I reflect on my career – and it’s always been in newspapers – that today, this morning, the experience of going through this particular transaction looms larger than any other in my career,” Davis said.

After two decades of covering just about every major business deal in the Augusta area – from the 1999 sale of Boardman Petroleum’s iconic convenience store chain to what is now the Canadian-based owner of the Circle K chain to this year’s acquisition of Georgia Bank & Trust by Columbia, S.C.’s South State Bank – I don’t think there has been a transaction that rivals this one.

I’ve been asked several times to give my assessment of what the deal means for the future of The Chronicle and its impact on this region.

Here’s the short answer: I’m optimistic.

Not “cautiously optimistic,” which is what people say when they’re not really optimistic. I’m genuinely optimistic.

I think The Chronicle will become a better news organization than it already is. And I think that, in turn, will make metro Augusta a better community. I’ve yet to see any evidence that would make me feel otherwise.

Any of you lamenting the Morris family’s smaller role in the local business community, just remember they are not going anywhere. They will still be actively involved in the non-newspaper assets of Morris Communications, which includes magazines and specialty publications.

The family also will remain involved in numerous nonprofit organizations and civic events, ranging from the Morris Museum of Art to the annual Augusta Futurity. Their reputation for being among Augusta’s most generous residents does not end with ownership of the newspapers.

As for The Chronicle, I believe the infusion of additional capital, innovative ideas and new energy will reinvigorate the organization. Under the continued management of Chronicle President Stephen Wade, himself a former GateHouse executive, I envision an organization that pursues business opportunities and community partnerships as aggressively as its newsroom pursues a big story.

The world we live in today is not the same world we lived in 10 years ago. And it’s certainly not the same one it was when I joined The Chronicle on Jan. 19, 1998.

There’s no reason tomorrow’s Chronicle can’t be better than today’s. I for one am looking forward to seeing that happen, and I hope you are, too.

 

AND NOW FOR THE WEATHER…: My workday forecast for Monday, Aug. 21., calls for intermittent darkness with a high chance of reduced productivity.

That’s because folks all over the metro area will drop what they’re doing for several minutes – or several hours, as the case may be – to view the solar eclipse.

The Partridge Inn is hoping you make an afternoon out of the historic event by heading to its rooftop bar, which it says offers “the most spectacular views of the sky in the city.” The hotel’s eclipse-viewing party starts at 1 p.m with specialty beverages such as the “Ring of Fire Martini” and “Total Eclipse Cocktail.”

The $10 cover charge comes with a pair of eclipse safety glasses. Only so many people can fit on the rooftop, so if you want to observe six minutes of the moon passing over 90 percent of the sun with drink in hand, get your tickets at Eventbrite.com.

 

HIGHBALLS HIGH UP: Seems like you can’t have a major downtown development these days without a rooftop bar. The Crowne Plaza hotel underway at North Augusta’s the Riverside Village at Hammonds Ferry development will have one. So will the Hyatt House at 1268 Broad St. So will Augusta Riverfront LLC’s Marriott-branded hotel across from the convention center at Ninth and Reynolds streets.

And if the star-studded cast behind the Augusta Innovation Zone concept can get it off the ground, there could be a watering hole atop the old Woolworth Building.

The next rooftop bar slated for development appears to be at 702 Broad St., the former home of Merry Land Properties.

The 44,000-square-foot building’s new owner, Haltermann Partners, intends to turn two floors of the five-story building into 17 loft apartments, with a restaurant on the ground floor and a bar on the roof. One floor would house current tenants, which include Georgia Legal Services Program and The Rossman Group LLC.

Company principal Bryan Haltermann, who already is turning 901 Broad St. into Marshall Lofts, a nine-unit apartment building with ground-floor commercial space, acquired the Merry Land property July 31. He didn’t disclose a sales price and public records were not available, but commercial real estate agents listed the building at $1.75 million.

Haltermann said the 700 block of Broad Street’s reemergence as the theater district practically guarantees the ground-floor space will cater to the dinner-and-a-show crowd.

“The Miller Theater is right next door and they said they plan to have 200 events a year,” Haltermann said. “Restaurants are the new anchor for downtown, the way the department stores were before 1978.”

He said he plans to use state and federal historic tax credits on the $5 million project to restore the building’s original glass storefront-style façade.

“We plan to open it up and let the light back in,” he said.

The building comes with 59 parking spaces, some of which will be made available to architect Chris Booker, who is planning to develop 14-16 apartments in the rear portion of his Commerce Building at 670 Broad St. and on the second floor of the adjacent 662 Broad St.

The buildings will have roughly 20,000 square feet between the two. Booker, whose Christopher Booker & Associates occupies the Commerce Building’s second floor, is the creative force behind the new EDTS LLC offices at the Sibley Mill/Augusta Cyberworks campus. He’s also working with TaxSlayer to redevelop the Downtown Family Y building into office space.

He said he is in discussions with a marketing firm interested in leasing the ground-floor space early next year, and that design and construction on the apartments already is underway.

“We’re looking at starting construction toward the end of the year,” he said.

 

SPEAKING OF THOSE FOLKS AT EDTS…: The Augusta tech firm’s EDTS Cyber division and Cape Augusta, its real estate partner in the Augusta Cyberworks campus, have teamed up to create a venture focused on protecting internet-connected consumer appliances and devices.

The new venture, Secure IOT LLC, is slated for full-scale operation in January. “IOT” stands for “the internet of things,” the term used to describe web-enabled video games, thermostats and home automation systems that cybercriminals can use to hack into bigger and better things (like your bank account).

“Advanced cyber security tools have typically been too expensive and complicated for the average home user,” the company said in a statement. “Secure IOT is dedicated to solving that problem.”

EDTS said Secure IOT, which will offer monthly- and yearly-based subscription services, could create as many as 75 jobs by 2021. In the meantime, EDTS and Cape Augusta continue working on the Cyberworks project, which aims to turn the former Sibley and King mills into high-tech office, data center and residential space.

 

BIG V’S COLONY: One of south Augusta’s most successful shopping centers, Colony Plaza, is under new ownership.

New York-based Big V Capital LLC this past week announced it has acquired the 216,000-square-foot center at 2115 Windsor Spring Road. The 89-percent occupied center, anchored by a Food Lion and Sitel’s customer service center, also is home to Planet Fitness, Roses and Hibbett Sports.

The company said its real estate management affiliate, Big V Properties, will oversee the 30-acre property near the intersection of Bobby Jones Expressway and Peach Orchard Road. Financial terms were not disclosed.

Big V said it owns and operates 3.6 million square feet worth of class A and B grocery- and discount-anchored neighborhood shopping centers throughout the Southeast.

 

ON THE LIST: The market’s largest hospital, University Hospital – made even larger by the recent acquisition of Trinity Hospital – was ranked No. 3 in Georgia on U.S. News & World Report’s annual “Best Hospitals” list. The magazine evaluates data on 175 hospitals in Georgia and more than 4,500 nationwide based on 25 specialties, procedures and conditions.

University Hospital tied for third with Macon’s Navicent Health Medical Center and Gainesville’s Northeast Georgia Medical Center. Hospitals affiliated with Atlanta’s Emory University took the top two spots.

In addition to the regional award, University Hospital earned top ratings in seven out of nine procedures and conditions tracked.

 

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

More