Medical College of Georgia Foundation Inc. is crying foul after its longtime interest in buying the nearby city bus depot has apparently been rebuffed in favor of a company developing a Walmart, an official said. But Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles said the foundation “tried to steal the Walmart from the developer” after Bowles tried to arrange a meeting between the foundation and the developer, Blanchard and Calhoun.
“In the business world, it’s very disturbing to treat a developer like that, especially a local developer interested in investing in Augusta,” he said. “They tried to circumvent the system.”
Foundation President and CEO James Osborne, whose organization owns an adjoining piece of land on 15th Street, said he “didn’t try to steal anything. I was acting on behalf of the foundation and the university.”
City Administrator Fred Russell said years of talks with the foundation went nowhere, and he took the best plan that would provide a grocery store for the neighborhood in the long term.
“You can’t make everybody happy,” he said.
Osborne said the foundation contacted Walmart directly after hearing the company was interested in downtown “and they were very interested” in the foundation’s property, he said. After meeting with an agent of the company in early January, the foundation was told a letter of intent would come within 10 days, but it never did. Osborne said he never spoke to Bowles about a meeting with Blanchard and Calhoun.
Then two weeks ago, the foundation met with Russell about the Augusta Public Transit property, which is next to the foundation’s shopping center on 15th Street, Osborne said. Russell told the foundation the city property was being sold for $400,000 to Blanchard and Calhoun, Osborne said. Russell did not confirm that figure but said it “sounds close.”
Osborne was told the deal would be put on hold, but Russell said he conferred with the commission, and it wanted to move forward with the deal.
The foundation has been trying to acquire the bus depot and its 3½ acres for at least the past seven years, Osborne said. About six or seven years ago, the foundation thought it had a deal to buy the property for $1 million, but “then it was blocked,” he said, and the foundation was never told why. Russell said he doesn’t remember ever having a final deal for the property.
The MCG Foundation’s shopping center has a Kroger grocery store, and the lease for that store was renewed in January, contrary to reports the store is closing, Osborne said.
“(Russell) said that Kroger had told him they were going to leave. But that’s not accurate,” Osborne said. “We told him that, and I thought that would shed some light on his concern that we’d be left here without a grocery store. We don’t see Kroger leaving in the foreseeable future.”
But that’s not what Russell and Bowles say they are hearing.
“My conversations with Kroger is they are not overly happy there,” Russell said. “My problem is I need a grocery store in the neighborhood. Best case scenario, whatever (the foundation does) there, that grocery store goes away. I need a long-term commitment to that community to have a grocery store. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush at this particular point in time.”
The Kroger lease is year-to-year and both sides have an option to terminate with six months’ notice, Osborne said. So Russell said he took the best deal, which was to allow Blanchard and Calhoun to develop a store on the site.
“A boutique Walmart, 40,000-square-foot, that’s going to be a new, exciting investment for that corner that hopefully can fit into (foundation) plans one way or the other,” Russell said. “Or maybe we can jointly plan this together. But we had to get off the nail. We’ve been on the cusp of some great thing for the last seven years. And I am getting tired of sitting on cusp. It’s time to move.”
If the project does not produce a grocery store, in fact, the land reverts to the city, Russell said.
A representative of Blanchard and Calhoun did not return three calls Wednesday seeking comment. Osborne said he would still like to make a proposal about the property and would like to see public hearings on it. Bowles said it is about putting the land in that area in play.
“This is about getting a piece of property back onto the tax base,” Bowles said. “It’s about a whole bunch of property around the bus property,” including parcels south of the Walmart tract because the new store, known as a Walmart Neighborhood Market, is likely to face Walton Way, he said.