Old mall's potential has yet to be seen

Weeds sprout from the cracks in Regency Mall's once-crowded parking lot. Colorful signs have faded, and police patrolling its empty driveways advise motorists not to tarry.

 

Still, six years since its last anchor store closed, Augusta's first mall continues to attract attention for three reasons:

Location. Location. Location.

Strategically located at Gordon Highway and U.S. Highway 1, the mall once billed as Georgia's largest is the quick-answer site for a variety of potential developments, from a sports arena to a Christian college.

The 72 acres of vacant indoor retail space and sprawling, cracked pavement also have been imagined as a place sanctified enough to be a mega-church or sufficiently gritty to hold a boisterous flea market.

To those watching and wondering when, if anything, would pick up at the crumbling monument to a bygone shopping era, it has been tough to keep up with the ideas being tossed around.

J. Harold Dye, 83, who watched the mall's rise and fall from his neighborhood overlooking it on a hill off Deans Bridge Road, has heard all the rumors and plans. He said it would be nice if one of them actually worked.

"It would be great to see something develop there instead of sitting there falling in on itself," he said.

Yet nothing has.

About seven years of talk that government offices would be housed there amounted to nothing. And a proposed replacement for the old civic center downtown was rebuked by voters unwilling to support it in a 2004 referendum.

There have been other expectations that haven't been held in such a public spotlight but also have gone unfulfilled.

About five years ago, a Christian university had the mall under contract, but that fell apart, said Mark Axler, who manages the property for its current owner.

There also was talk about making it a massive call center at one point, but that fizzled, too.

Walter Sprouse, the executive director of the Richmond County Development Authority, said the organization has been actively trying to find a use for the building, but it's a tough sell.

The authority, charged with improving the city's business and economy, has shown the mall to potential buyers twice in the last four years, Mr. Sprouse said.

Once it was to a company that redevelops old malls, and another time it was to a group that was interested in using Regency for a federal government purpose, he said.

The development authority also traveled to Florida last year to visit a "festival marketplace" to see if that might be a potential use, but there's still no partying going on at the mall.

Since its decline, there has always been an idea floating out there, and everyone has an opinion about what the site could be, Mr. Sprouse said.

"I think if you go out and ask 15 different people what needs to be done with the Regency Mall, you'll get 15 different answers," he said.

Even now, Macedonia Baptist Church is clinging to a plan to open a satellite campus there after having the vacant property under contract for almost a year.

Johnnie Settles, the church's administrator, said he still envisions a sprawling multiuse facility with the potential for day care, offices and classrooms.

But the church has yet to get the first leg of its plan off the ground. Mr. Settles said the church is trying to determine how the campus would be financed.

A big part of the mall's problem has been the property's split ownership, Mr. Sprouse said.

After Montgomery Ward closed in 2001, the mall was split between an Athens businessman and a Mattituck, N.Y.-based company called Cardinale Real Estate, which controls everything but the Ward building, or about 86 percent of the property at the mall.

While the Montgomery Ward building has been sold again and actively marketed over the past three years, the vast majority of the property has sat dark, with little indication from its owner about the company's intentions.

After the city government gave up on the idea of moving offices to the mall, the Cardinale group announced in 2003 that it would stop marketing its property and hold on to it as a long-term investment.

Its only current tenant is the county Marshal's Office.

Sometimes, Mr. Sprouse explained, it's worth it for companies to take a loss on inactive property while they wait to see if something happens.

In the meantime, the property's exterior has visibly deteriorated.

Its shattered windows, graffiti-strewn walls and overgrown weeds have become an eyesore, said Carl Lawson, 45, who works at a karaoke bar across the street from the dead mall.

"It's just a sore thumb. It's a big building just sitting there," he said.

Police reported a dog fight being held there in November, and the city recently warned the mall's owners to clean up the property, said Pam Costabile, the code enforcement supervisor.

Mr. Axler, the regional vice president for Cardinale Real Estate, said the company is going to pay for some cosmetic work to be done.

He said the real estate group will replace the dilapidated road signs and will fill in the cracks in the parking lot.

The interior, Mr. Axler said, is in excellent shape.

He also said the owner has plans to begin marketing the property again.

Mr. Axler said the company is closer than it has ever been to making something happen - a common, if shaky, assurance in the real estate world.

But he visited the site twice in March and had plans to make another trip this week.

Mr. Axler also said he has turned down an offer for the site from an Atlanta mall company. But he is considering a joint-venture with another group that wants to do retail.

Whether the plan works out or ends up in the scrap heap with other broken ideas for the mall is unclear.

If it does, there will likely be another idea or plan that will follow, because few are willing to give up on the building.

Mr. Sprouse said too many times he has done that in his career in development only to see an investor make something out of what appeared to be nothing.

"You and I ride by it and say, maybe they should tear it down and just use the land," Mr. Sprouse said.

However, that doesn't matter because at the end of the day "the best use for that property is what an investor sees."

Reach Justin Boron at (706) 823-3215 or justin.boron@augustachronicle.com.

REGENCY MALL

July 27, 1978: Regency Mall, Augusta's first enclosed mall and the largest in Georgia, has its grand opening.

Aug. 3, 1978: Augusta Mall opens on Wrightsboro Road.

March 1986: Aleta Carol Bunch is abducted from Regency Mall. The 16-year-old is later found shot to death and dumped in the woods near Hephzibah. Fears about crime and poor security plague the mall.

April 1993: Upton's Department Store abruptly closes.

1989-94: Retail tenants complain of low traffic, and many vacate at the end of their leases.

May 1995: The Edward J. DeBartolo family, the mall's original owner, sells it to a mortgage firm in Atlanta.

1996: Consolidated government officials discuss buying the mall to house federal offices.

September 1996: Belk Outlet Store closes.

Dec. 11, 1996: Partners Hayward Whichard and Paul Woo become new owners of Regency Mall.

2001: Montgomery Ward, the final anchor store, closes.

2003: The mall's newest owners, Cardinale Real Estate, announce that the defunct shopping center will remain empty indefinitely after the city decides against locating offices there.

July 2005: Bond initiative to build an entertainment complex fails.

July 2006: Macedonia Baptist Church, with a congregation of 2,600, announces plans to open a satellite campus for the church by April.

March 2007: The Montgomery Ward space is still under contract with Macedonia Baptist, but the church's administrator said no work has been done to the site to open it.

Source: The Augusta Chronicle archives