Community wants more options

Kendrick Brinson/Staff
Andre Griffin lives in south Augusta and says he is tired of having to drive far from his home to shop or go to a nice restaurant.

Andre Griffin is faced with the question every time he wants to go shopping for clothes or take his family out to something classier than a buffet restaurant:


How far do I want to drive?

It's one many south Augusta residents ask themselves because of the dearth of retail and restaurant options in the city's fastest-growing area.

The answer more times than not for Mr. Griffin, a 20-year resident of the Sand Ridge neighborhood off Tobacco Road, is to make a half-hour trek to west Augusta or Columbia County.

The 51-year-old Fort Gordon retiree said he wants to be able to take his family to a nice restaurant that's not too far from his home, adding "I want to be able to go to a nice movie theater."

But there are no multiplexes or Bonefish Grills, Targets or Kohl's stores, all major name brand chains, anywhere within what is considered south Augusta. There are, however, seemingly endless stretches of fast food joints, used car lots, discount stores, pawn shops and convenience stores along Gordon Highway and Deans Bridge, Peach Orchard, Windsor Spring and Tobacco roads, the major thoroughfares in south Augusta.

Along a four-mile stretch of Gordon Highway, from Deans Bridge Road to Barton Chapel Road, there are more than a dozen used car lots.

Sammy Sias, the president of the Richmond County Neighborhood Association and a longtime Sand Ridge resident, wants more for his area. That's why his group and former mayoral candidate Steven Kendrick are asking the Augusta Commission to create an agency whose primary purpose would be to market south Augusta to major retailers.

As incoming Downtown Development Authority board chairman, Mr. Kendrick said he's heard complaints that no one's helping the southside.

The new organization would be similar to what the city center has with the downtown authority, and it would be responsible for, among other things, updating the area's image and erasing whatever stigma is keeping investors away.

"If I wanted to buy three cases of copier paper and three staplers for my office, where would I go in south Augusta?" Mr. Sias said.

GETTING WHAT Mr. Sias and many of the more than 110,000 people who live in south Augusta might want will likely come down to two things: demographics and determination.

The demographic part doesn't necessarily help the area's prospects.

According to estimates generated by market analysis service DemographicsNow -- whose figures are derived from census trends, births, deaths, building permits, Internal Revenue Service statistics and other indicators -- south Augusta still has a lot of catching up to do before it can compete with Columbia County.

Mr. Sias' proposed development authority would cover all the territory south of Gordon Highway and the Belair Road area west of Bobby Jones Expressway. The estimated average household income in that area is $43,499, according to DemographicsNow.

In comparison, the average household income in the areas where most new retail is steering is $65,484 in west Augusta and $77,439 in Columbia County.

There are pockets of greater affluence in south Augusta, though. The census tract that includes Willis Foreman Road and Diamond Lakes Regional Park has an estimated average household income of $50,092, and it's estimated at $49,890 for the tract that includes Meadowbrook Drive.

A RECENT SURVEY of national retailers showed median income and total households are the two most important market indicators for retailers, said Elsie Achugbue, a research analyst with Washington, D.C.-based Social Compact, a nonprofit that promotes investment in underserved communities.

Other factors, such as educational attainment, are factors for certain retailers.

Only 12 percent of those 25 and older in south Augusta are college-educated, compared with 37 percent in west Augusta and 35 percent in Columbia County.

South Augusta is 59 percent black, while west Augusta is 60 percent white and Columbia County is 79 percent white.

Asked whether racial demographics matter, Ms. Achugbe said it's always an issue, even if it isn't talked about.

"There are retailers that are more comfortable, if that's the right word, with the urban market, diverse markets, ethnic markets," she said.

Carolina Valencia, an associate director of research for Social Compact, said lower-income areas often have difficulties in attracting upper-end retail.

"It's not the retailers' choice to penalize the community," Ms. Valencia said. "At the end of the day, the retailer is a for-profit entity and wants to sell its product. If it knew that it had a way to make profit in any market, it will go in."

HERE'S WHERE determination comes in. Sometimes, Ms. Valencia said, a community must make an extra effort to show retailers it will support them.

"It really is a question of how can a city make a neighborhood attractive for the retailer that you want to come," she said.

Mr. Sias envisions that the proposed authority, employing a full-time executive director, would help make the case for his community. But the prospect of another government-funded agency doesn't thrill some city officials.

Mayor Deke Copenhaver didn't hesitate to call it a bad idea. Two south Augusta commissioners, Calvin Holland Sr. of District 5 and Joe Jackson of District 6, expressed skepticism.

The commission and the mayor's office are already working to bring new business to south Augusta, they said. Mr. Holland, who said he wouldn't support the plan, noted he's in talks with investors from several restaurant chains, which he declined to name.

Mr. Copenhaver said south Augusta's business landscape will improve with the expansion of Plant Vogtle and the new National Security Agency center at Fort Gordon, both of which should bring thousands of new jobs.

He said he's more worried about unchecked growth leading to sprawl and traffic congestion in south Augusta, and he hopes to allocate special purpose local option sales tax funds for beautification projects along gateways such as Doug Barnard Parkway, Mike Padgett Highway and Peach Orchard and Deans Bridge roads.

"The key is the planning process," Mr. Copenhaver said. "I am not in favor of setting up another bureaucracy."

Mr. Sias said if the mayor and the commission are in charge of recruiting, he only has to look around to see that they're falling down on the job.

"We need to know where the results are, because right now, the results aren't there," he said.

SOUTH AUGUSTA'S old image might be as big a factor as any in what does and doesn't come there, according to some.

Gayla Moore, a vice president with Meybohm Realtors who has sold real estate in the Augusta area, including south Augusta, for 10 years, attributes the lack of retail growth to an image that harkens back decades when south Augusta was less developed than the rest of the county. That began to change in the 1990s as more people looked to move from the urban core to suburban neighborhoods.

Now, homes rival those in Columbia County, she said, noting that homes in one new subdivision, the Lakes at Spirit Creek, run in the upper-$200,000s to $300,000 range.

"The south Augusta market doesn't really have a chance sometimes because it's kind of already written off," she said.

"It's not that (businesses) wouldn't have the traffic to support them coming here," Ms. Moore said. "It's just that the people have to have the businesses to go to first. The opportunity is there, but there is no one that's really saying, 'Let's focus on South Augusta.' "

Reach Johnny Edwards and Mike Wynn at (706) 724-0851.