“Ben Carter is no longer pursuing it,” said Tony Wilbert, president of The Wilbert Group, which handles public relations for Atlanta-based developer Ben Carter Enterprises. “He had several retailers interested, but to make it a fashion outlet mall, you need some key ones, like Polo.
“Ben was negotiating with them ... We can’t talk for Polo, but some of the key ones decided it wasn’t the right time to be opening at that site.”
In February, Carter and city leaders held a press conference at the development off Riverwatch Parkway and announced the 400,000-square-fashion mall, which they said would bring top-tier fashion retailers, 1,500 jobs and a $150 million investment to the area. In addition to building the “Outlet Mall of Georgia at Augusta,” Carter also planned to develop an additional 400,000 square feet in restaurants, hotels and other retail use on 25 acres of the site near Costco and Cabela’s.
Carter was under contract this summer to purchase 70 acres of the development near Interstate 20 from Dallas-based MG Herring Group, which did not immediately return phone calls Friday.
Part of the purchase agreement hinged on moving a proposed 14-screen movie theater to another spot on the site. In July, executives with Ben Carter Enterprises announced that Georgia Theatre Co. had agreed to reposition Riverwatch 14 Cinemas.
The canceled project hasn’t changed plans for Riverwatch 14 Cinemas, said Bo Chambliss, president of Georgia Theatre Co.
“We’re almost finished with the plans now and we hope to start construction in the next couple of months, hopefully well before the end of the year," he said.
The theater will include a full-service restaurant and a large-format presentation auditorium, with an 80-foot-wide, four-story screen. Chambliss said the theater will employ about 50 people and should open by next July.
Carter, who was traveling Friday and couldn’t be reached, has said that Augusta’s demographics and 50-mile regional trade radius made the fashion outlet project attractive.
“He obviously sees the market as a good spot for a fashion outlet mall,” Wilbert said. “He said some of the retailers just weren’t there yet.”
The development group planned to have 60 percent of space in the outlet mall leased before breaking ground in December. By early July, developers were working to convert letters of intent for 25 percent of the retail space into leases.
The commercial real estate firm wanted to open the mall in time for the 2016 Masters Tournament.
Ben Carter Enterprises is developing an outlet mall near Savannah, Ga., which is set to open in the spring of 2015. The Augusta project was supposed to attract the same type of retailers that have committed to the Savannah mall.
This is the second outlet mall that’s been discussed for the area.
In 2011, Augusta real estate firm Blanchard and Calhoun tested the waters for an outlet mall near the Gateway shopping center, off the Grovetown exit of Interstate 20, but solid plans never materialized. The company’s senior vice president, Matt Mills, said last year that outlet retailers were reluctant to locate in metro Augusta because of the city’s small market size, and they didn’t want to compete with their primary retail stores already established.
Andy Wilke, general manager of the Augusta Mall, agreed that market size and competing stores can deter outlet retailers from choosing a particular site.
“It all comes down to tenants,” he said. “They could want to build a skyscraper in the city, but if no one wants to be in the skyscraper then they’re not going to build it. There is quite a bit of vacant retail space in the market already, so adding another 400,000-square-feet I think would have been a particular challenge.”
The mall on Wrightsboro Road, which just opened a 23,000-square-foot, two-story H&M store Aug. 14, is now 99 percent leased, Wilke said.
“We have tenants that want to be in the mall, and we’re trying to find space for them,” he said. “But, we have a good problem in that we don’t have space for them.”