Contract approved for downtown retail project

Members of Augusta’s Downtown Devel­opment Authority are optimistic about efforts to revitalize the urban retail sector.

At the authority’s monthly meeting, board members gave final approval Thursday for a retail study designed to attract businesses downtown.

“These are going to be national or regional retailers who are used to urban areas and what generally are some of the challenges that come with urban areas,” said Margaret Woodard, the authority’s executive director.

The retail project, Woodard said, has been well-received by the community, with a projected $12,500 already raised by private investors. Organizations having made contributions include Augusta Tomorrow, Augusta Regional Collaboration, The Emporium and Golden Living Centers of Augusta.

The study will be conducted by Retail Strategies, an Alabama retail consulting firm, and is expected to cost between $40,000 and $60,000 over three years. At least 50 percent of that amount will be generated from the private sector, with the authority funding the remaining portion, Woodard said.

“Everyone has been so excited by this,” she said. “Our phones are ringing off the hook. We’ve got more contracts. People are building out new apartments. It’s an exciting time in downtown.”

The city also might use the consulting company for its own retail study, which would lower the amount responsible by the authority, Woodard said.

The project will be done in three phases and includes a market analysis, strategic planning and retail recruitment services. The first phase, expected to last a year, will pinpoint what type of commercial entities are needed.

The authority is in the process of providing the group with a building inventory of downtown, Woodard said.

“If we could get one or two reasonable retail entities down here, it would be a feather in our caps and help us take off,” board member Natalie McLeod said.

Before the board voted to approve the contract, members discussed the criminal activity downtown in the past month.

Last weekend, a couple was attacked while seated on a Riverwalk Augusta bench near the former Fort Discovery.

The day before, a man was assaulted and robbed as he left a Broad Street pub. On Monday, a YouTube video went viral showing a fight last month in front of the J.B. White’s Building that appeared to end with the sound of gunfire.

“We can’t ignore the issue that does impact the perception,” said the authority’s chairman, Cameron Nixon. “All we can do is keep working on the positive, which is downtown is safe. There’s people moving downtown. There’s retail coming downtown.”

Despite the violence, Woodard said, plans are underway for 54 more residential units downtown, which has about a 99 percent resident-occupancy rate. Contracts to purchase two condominiums in the J.B. White’s Building were secured even after the brawl video began circulating, she added.

Board treasurer Sanford Loyd agreed that although the incidents are isolated, “we have to try to prevent that situation from happening again, no matter if it’s only happening one time in 10 years.”

Said board member McLeod: “The problem is the perception it’s a dangerous place and it really isn’t. There are isolated incidents every once in a while, but overall the statistics show it’s very safe down here.”

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