Fifteen small businesses, five large developers and at least two major companies have expressed interest in opening along the 15th Street corridor after an award-winning project funded by federal and state grants provided a vision for a place residents say is underserved, one city official said this week.
“This is an area of enormous potential that’s waiting to be tapped,” John Paul Stout, the manager of the Augusta Sustainable Development Implementation Program.
The project’s 4.5-mile study area runs from downtown to the Regency Mall area along 15th Street, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Deans Bridge Road.
Stout would not provide specific details on the interested parties because the project remains in its final stages, but he said the businesses include distribution, pharmacy, school expansion, and grocery and fresh food.
According to the program’s final report, released in November, project consultants are establishing a code for the district that’s based more on a building’s appearance than its use.
The code’s concept was developed in the early 1990s in response to urban sprawl, deterioration of historic neighborhoods and neglect of pedestrian safety in new development, and it operates more on municipal regulation and less on land-use policy.
Project findings show 45 percent of the land surrounding 15th Street is zoned for business or light industrial purposes, 16 percent is vacant or undeveloped, and more than 93 percent is less than 1 acre.
Stout said those demographics show the 15th Street corridor is built to support small business.
“People want amenities,” he said. “It’s a food desert out there.”
Stout was hired to lead the project in 2011, one year after Augusta was chosen as one of 10 cities nationwide for a $1.8 million combination grant from the state transportation and federal Housing and Urban Development departments. Thousands applied for the grant, which expires at the end of February.
Augusta’s project, which earned the Georgia Planning Association’s Outstanding Project of the Year in 2013, was completed two months ahead of schedule and returned $291,000 to the state and $21,000 to the federal government, Stout said.
“That success demonstrates fiscal responsibility and hopefully puts us in a better place to receive federal funding in the future,” he said.
The project began gaining steam in October 2012 when the first of a dozen community forums were held for residents to provide input on how their community should look and how the city could help to make that vision a reality.
The community started with expanding the state’s plan for widening 15th Street to include sidewalks, bike lanes, bus stops and street lighting.
A survey of the area showed missing sidewalks between Martin Luther King Jr. and Essie McIntyre boulevards. In areas with sidewalks, pavement was overgrown with weeds, passed through parking lots or was obstructed by signs, utility poles and fire hydrants.
The widening is paid for by special purpose local option sales tax dollars and is scheduled to begin as early as 2016.
Next, the project spent $75,000 to offer home management classes, bring in job recruiters and provide parents six months of free child care at Shiloh Community Center to help people find jobs and afford nicer housing.
Lastly, the project paid for a $24,000 mural on the Rosa T. Beard Memorial Bridge.
According to the recommendations, the city needs to spend $111,000 to add inspection staff and hold foreclosure proceedings for about 60 vacant or dilapidated homes each year, and develop high-performance building incentives.
“The final reports are getting the bows tied on them right now,” Stout said. “It is up to the commission on which regulatory changes they would like to make.”
As for Stout, he is unsure about what his future holds. His job, which pays $58,000 annually, will end when the project grant expires Feb. 28.
“We’ll see what happens,” he said. “I had a job of giving the people traditionally underserved a voice and I am extremely grateful for the city allowing me to serve that role.”