Georgia Health Sciences University President Ricardo Azziz worried about Walmart land deal

GHSU president requests area development plan
On Jan. 17, the Augusta Commission voted to sell a parcel of land to Walmart for development of a downtown store, a move that has elicited concern from the Medical College of Georgia Foundation.

Concerns about a proposed downtown Walmart Neighborhood Market that could affect property owned by a Georgia Health Sciences University foundation prompted GHSU on Tuesday to call on developers and the city to present a “win-win” plan for the area that provides for broader development.

President Ricardo Azziz said he did not initially know much about the grocery store that would be developed on a city-owned parcel off 15th Street. He said he became more concerned late last week, particularly after reading an Augusta Chronicle article in which an attorney who represents the newspaper said the vote to authorize the sale should not have been made in closed session.

As details emerged, Azziz said, he has grown more concerned that the development of a single store could harm adjacent property owned by the Medical College of Georgia Foundation, which already contains a Kroger grocery store.

“I am not opposed to the Walmart development if the Walmart development is part of a larger plan,” he said. “What I am not in favor of is the plan as it is now: a one-off store that is not part of a greater vision for that area and if anything will be, in the short run, detrimental to the university.”

Azziz said he has not talked about taking legal action over the vote or over the sale, echoing the sentiments of foundation CEO and President James Osborne.

“I don’t particularly feel like getting into litigation with the city,” Azziz said. “These are our partners. We just need to have a better conversation to build a better plan.”

The foundation is still seeking answers on why it was not allowed to buy the Augusta Public Transit property next to its 13 acres off 15th Street. The foundation made an offer of $1 million for the property in 2009 after hearing from developers, including one from Atlanta, that outlined plans for a hotel, two restaurants and perhaps a continuing education center and alumni center on the expanded site, Osborne said. Most major health sciences universities, such as Duke and the University of Alabama-Birmingham, have similar facilities next door, and the property serves as an entrance to the university and to the medical district, he said.

“We don’t have those kinds of amenities here,” he said. About 90 percent of the traffic to the university and district comes along the 15th Street corridor from Interstate 20 and Calhoun Expressway, Osborne said. The sale was blocked, however, and the foundation still does not know why, nor why the current sale had to be done in a closed meeting.

“I think the ball is in the city’s court to give us some answers,” he said.

Jim Plunkett, the special city counsel who presented the Walmart proposal to the Augusta Commission on Jan. 17 before its closed-door vote, said that nothing the commission has agreed to prevents Walmart from being included in a larger development plan for the area.

A resolution signed by Mayor Deke Copenhaver that day sets the sales price, provides for environmental remediation if needed, and addresses the presence of Federal Transit Administration and state liens on the land that must be repaid if the property is no longer used as a bus maintenance shop, he said. Development plans could easily expand to include the foundation-owned area, but Plunkett said the general intended footprint of the Walmart is unlikely to change.

The Walmart offer came along as completion of a new facility to house the city buses in south Augusta neared. It is expected to be complete in 10 to 12 months, he said.

Azziz said he has heard from the developer, Blanchard and Calhoun, and from the city but would like to see a broader plan “relatively soon,” perhaps this week or next.

“Certainly, they have the opportunity to build not just one grocery store but multiple commercial facilities, perhaps a hotel, perhaps actual living space, a number of things,” he said. “And to be fair to the city, the city is interested in doing the same thing. We just need to find now that win-win plan, which should not be very hard to do if people are willing and desirous of doing it.”

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