Blanchard and Calhoun Commercial Senior Vice President Matt Mills said his company, in addition to an affiliate, solicited interest for a local outlet mall about 18 months ago at various retail-outlet conferences to a tepid audience.
“The feedback we got back from most of them was they were going to concentrate in more metropolitan areas,” Mills said. “Augusta just wasn’t big enough for their expansion model at the time.”
Since then, there haven’t been any bites.
Other retailers, on the other hand, seem to be chomping at the bit to bring their business to the area despite a still-sluggish economy.
On July 24, Bass Pro Shops announced a 50,000-square-foot outpost store coming near the Columbia County intersection of Interstate 20 and Flowing Wells Road, possibly as soon as late next year. Just the next day, news came of a 42,000-square-foot Cabela’s sporting goods store and a 14-auditorium movie theater within the Village at Riverwatch development in Augusta.
On Wednesday, another announcement revealed plans for a 41,000-square-foot Whole Foods Market at Washington Crossing Shopping Center, off Washington Road and Interstate 20.
Other area projects already in the works or recently opened include a Sam’s Club in Aiken County, three new Walmarts across the area, a Carolina Pottery store in Martinez, a second Big Lots in Evans and an H&M fashion store for the Augusta Mall.
In an attempt to gauge interest for a local outlet mall, Columbia County planning officials surveyed residents in January 2011. More than 90 percent of about 4,000 respondents across the area supported such a development in the county.
The idea initially gained steam after a 2010 Columbia County retail survey had indicated the public wanted an outlet mall within county limits. A parcel next to the Grovetown Walmart in the Gateway shopping center, which has I-20 frontage, was identified as an ideal, ready-to-go location.
The county additionally created an outlet-mall analysis available to developers interested in embarking on the project.
Columbia County Development Services Director Richard Harmon has said that a local outlet mall would benefit Columbia County and surrounding areas by generating sales tax revenue, creating jobs and cutting driving distances for shoppers.
Working against the outlet mall concept is that many of the retailers, such as Nike and Polo, that were contacted by Mills and his consultant said they didn’t want to negatively affect sales of stores already carrying their products in the Augusta market, Mills said.
“Given the size of the market and the presence of their primary retail stores in the Augusta Mall, they were afraid that the outlet locations would cannibalize on sales,” he said.
Several outlet retailers, including Nike, Timberland and Coach, declined to comment on how they choose a new site and whether Augusta would be a desirable location.
For outlet-mall giant Tanger, which operates Georgia retail developments in Commerce and Locust Grove, street visibility and ease of access rank high when considering potential sites, spokesman Quentin Pell wrote in an e-mail.
“Typically our sites usually enjoy high visibility along roadways with high-passenger counts from residents and tourists,” Pell wrote. “The decision to move on any given project is unique and multifaceted.”
The company has 43 outlet centers in 26 states and Canada. Four Tanger outlet centers are along the South Carolina coast, including Hilton Head and Charleston.
Pell said Tanger is continually in the process of evaluating new project sites but ruled out the Augusta market as a current prospect.
Mills said he believes Augusta will “definitely be home to an outlet center” in the future when the economy and outlet retailers’ attitude justify the endeavor.
“I think we’re going to continue to monitor it,” he said. “When it makes sense, and the retailers’ perspective changes, and they want to invest in a secondary market like Augusta, we’ll be ready to take advantage of it.”