With the cyber industry igniting a new wave of downtown development, Augusta’s mayor wants to see the city’s new growth spread.
He even has a direction picked out – and it follows Gordon Highway.
“Obviously downtown is the thing that everybody’s talking about, and without question we’ve got to have a very strong urban core with a focus around downtown,” Mayor Hardie Davis said. “But I want to kind of segue into ‘how do we get to downtown?’ ”
Today marks four months since the city played host to the #SOGO Summit – “SOGO” standing for “south of Gordon Highway.” The one-day gathering brought together realtors and developers to examine south Augusta’s economic prospects and opportunities, and to discuss financing redevelopment through public-private partnerships.
Notable among the attendees: William J. de St. Aubin, CEO of the Sizemore Group, a development company specializing in multi-use developments such as town centers; and James McKinnon, son-in-law of Alan Cardinale, whose company owns the vacant Regency Mall.
Davis sees Regency as a key to rekindling south Augusta development.
“I think from a business standpoint the city has to lead the way on that,” he said. “You look at the last 20-plus years of a vacant and abandoned mall, and there have been some conversations, but they have not been what I would call really strategic conversations about how we can jump-start this.”
The city took a step toward jump-starting that last year when the Augusta Commission authorized a land swap with the Richmond County Board of Education. The school board got 80-plus acres of city land adjacent to the BOE’s transportation department offices on Mike Padgett Highway.
The city got the old Regency Exchange 8 Cinema property behind Regency Mall. The city also agreed to pay $100,000 for an adjoining 36.5 acres.
The city plans to raze the old movie theater and spend more than $15 million to move Augusta Public Transit’s bus maintenance facility there from its current downtown location on Fenwick Street. Construction is expected to begin later this year.
City officials chose that site because of its more central location and its proximity to Augustans more likely to regularly ride the bus.
Davis thinks the public commitment to redeveloping near Regency will spur confidence in nearby private development.
“That was, in our mind, the first investment to make it SOGO, a pretty significant investment – quite frankly the largest investment that’s being made out there in the last 20-plus years,” he said.
For several years, Regency – at the intersection of Gordon Highway and Deans Bridge Road – has stood as possibly the most conspicuous monument to south Augusta’s economic torpor.
Regency opened with fanfare in 1978, but by the early 1990s its anchor tenants – the major retailers occupying a mall – began pulling out. Regency’s last anchor tenant, Montgomery Ward, left in 2001.
Regency’s original developer, Edward J. DeBartolo and Associates, transferred the mall to mortgage holder Equitable Real Estate in 1995. Two years later, Equitable sold Regency for $4.15 million to a company formed by Raleigh, N.C., developers Haywood Whichard and Paul Woo. In 1999 Whichard bought out Woo’s share for $2.7 million in a foreclosure auction, as stores continued to leave.
A substation for the Richmond County Marshal’s Office became the last tenant to move out of the mall in 2011.
The current owner, New York-based Cardinal Entities Co., bought the property through two purchases, in 2002 and 2007, for $3.4 million. In 2013 Cardinal spent about $2 million to gut the building and groom it for reuse.
Regency Mall is now listed for sale at $63 million, according to the real estate website LoopNet. The listing was last updated July 6. The city last appraised the three parcels of land comprising the Regency property at $4.2 million.
At the time of the March summit, Augusta Commissioner Ben Hasan said McKinnon’s appearance on Regency’s behalf “shows they want to do business.”
Precisely what business still is being discussed. The next step, Davis said, is to bring back to the table those developers who visited Augusta earlier this year, especially Regency’s owner. He described them as “extremely interested” in investing in and adapting the mall property.
“There have been discussions about living space as well as retail space and possibly commercial space,” Davis said. “We talked about possibly breaking the building up into three nodes. Those are sizable structures.”
Discussions also touched on the commercial possibilities presented by vacant properties in Gordon Highway’s aging strip malls. One option is micro-manufacturing. It’s not necessarily the production of very small products or components, but making products in small quantities using smaller facilities.
“You don’t need a smokestack anymore. But you need 100,000, 200,000 square feet of space,” Davis said.
Separate from the SOGO initiative, other south Augusta businesses and industries have been expanding.
Personnel services company Sizemore Inc. is nearing completion on renovating the former Gerald Jones Mazda dealership at 2203 Gordon Highway and turning it into Sizemore’s corporate headquarters. It acquired the property last year.
On July 6, Starbucks announced a $120 million expansion of its facility at Augusta Corporate Park off Georgia Highway 56. It will add at least 100 new jobs to the plant that produces soluble coffee for Starbucks’ VIA Ready Brew line of instant products.
More development is expected. Walter Sprouse, executive director of the Augusta Economic Development Authority, said of five new business prospects that have contacted the authority in just the past week, all five are looking at locations in south Augusta.
Smaller south Augusta businesses also are growing.
The Augusta-based Sprint Foods convenience store chain cut the ribbon June 29 on its 20th location, at 2202 Gordon Highway, at its intersection with Barton Chapel Road.
Wright One Paint and Body Shop, at 1850 Gordon Highway, is awaiting final county approval to break ground on a $1 million expansion.
Owner Harold Wright said plans are in place to build a 12,000-square-foot facility in addition to its 8,000 square feet of current space. He also expects to add four employees, bringing his total to 18.
He also is working with the Augusta Transitional Center to introduce job training at his business for released inmates.
Wright said people have told him that if he relocated to Columbia County, his business would boom. He declined. Not only is he staying in south Augusta, he wants to grow there.
“I put my shop in the right place at the right time,” he said. “We’re definitely not going anywhere.”
With new development catching hold in other areas of the city, Wright said the need has grown to develop south Augusta in general and the businesses bordering Gordon Highway in particular.
“This corridor should be addressed first of all. It’s your main artery through your city,” he said. “I think it’s coming back. With the growth of Cyber Command out of Fort Gordon, they’ll have to come this way.”
Wright One’s expansion is not economic news on the level of the Starbucks expansion. But Davis considers such smaller steps to be part of the “first wave” of investments along Gordon Highway.
“It doesn’t sound like the big jobs that were identifying from a manufacturing perspective or even cyber innovation and technology, but body shop work, these types of highly skilled jobs from a crafts perspective,” Davis said. “So he’s not only going to be expanding his facility, but he’ll be providing training that I think he’s hoping to leverage into a training center.”
But Davis calls the city’s transit move to Regency a “catalytic project.” That, coupled with the increased growth of the Cyber Center of Excellence at Fort Gordon, is expected to spark more growth – and more job opportunities – along Gordon Highway.
“Augusta without question is strong today. Cyber is an amazing opportunity for us as a city,” Davis said. “But in order for Augusta to be a city of opportunity for everyone, and for Augusta to be her strongest, we have to address that corridor.”
Reach Joe Hotchkiss at (706) 823-3543 or firstname.lastname@example.org.