Just a few hundred yards from the Broadway Tackle shop he has operated for 26 years, the new Salvation Army Kroc Center's brick tower juts skyward, forever altering the city's West End community.
"It lends a degree of respectability to this corridor," the transplanted New Yorker said. "And I hope it will bring other businesses here that add value."
Lesser and others have great expectations for the $100 million community center and social services complex that has brought 100 jobs to an area that has seen little growth in decades.
The center -- with an array of social service offices in addition to its opulent aquatics and recreation center -- is the newest such venture in a national network of public facilities made possible by the $1.7 billion gift from McDonald's heiress Joan Kroc.
While no two cities are alike, positive things have accompanied Kroc Centers in other areas, including San Diego, where the first one opened in 2002.
"This center has helped establish jobs, create surrounding businesses, and increase the value of homes nearby," financial analyst Adam Vanni said in an economic impact study he wrote in 2004.
Within two years of the center's opening, the median price of homes in the immediate area surged 59.88 percent, he said, although the economy and interest rates at the time also contributed, he said.
The Kroc Center in Salem, Ore., which opened in October 2009, serves a city comparable in size and population to Augusta.
Although its location in an industrial park sets it apart from the Augusta facility's neighborhood location, it has brought changes, said Maria Salazar, the Salem Salvation Army's director of development.
"We have a bridge near here that used to be one of the city's highest drug-dealing and prostitution areas," she said. "It's changed entirely. You can literally walk down the street and feel completely safe."
Salem Police spokesman David O'Kada could not directly correlate the center to a change in crime rate.
"I don't think there's more crime, but there's more people in the area, so they are reporting it more," he said.
In Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, where a Kroc Center opened in April 2009, officials said a rapid rise in membership was a catalyst for development.
Maj. John Chamness, the center's director, said the facility gained 14,000 members within the first month and 22,000 by the end of the first year, which might have contributed to a new grocery store nearby.
"It may have happened anyway, but we think they were more willing and had more confidence to take that risk, knowing there would be more traffic with us here," Chamness said.
Dayton, Ohio, also has a Kroc Center which -- like Augusta -- sits in a mixed-use retail, commercial and residential area.
Although its impact has not been studied in detail, it is very likely a catalyst for ongoing successes in redevelopment, said Chris Kershner, the vice president of public policy and economic development for Dayton's chamber of commerce.
"Companies and residents are starting to make investments. When you drive around, you can see it. It's visual," he said.
Augusta's Kroc Center, unlike any other, holds the potential to provide the most comprehensive impact data ever gathered on such projects, because of a just-completed, comprehensive study of Harrisburg and the surrounding area.
"It has more going for it, I think, than any community where we've worked," said Katherine Moore, the manager of the Georgia Conservancy's Blueprints for Successful Communities program, in which the conservancy and Georgia Tech teamed up for a planning analysis of the area.
During the six-month project, the 10-person team analyzed property values, land sales, tax records, crime reports and other aspects of the working-class neighborhood. "We also actually, physically, walked all the streets," Moore said, which was the only way to document abandoned or dilapidated buildings.
The data and corresponding maps provide an impartial snapshot of the community surrounding the Kroc Center, so updating the information in future years will be one way to gauge the impact of the project.
"It was the original, walkable community where people walked to the mills to work, and many of those lot sizes and alleys have stayed the same," she said. "It has a variety of options and can become a cool, hip kind of place where people would want to be."
Among the group's findings, nearly two-thirds of usable houses are occupied by renters, and one-third of all homes are in disrepair. The vast majority, the report said, are valued at less than $32,000.
Harrisburg, the researchers found, also has challenges that include a high crime rate -- 14.4 violent crimes per 1,000 residents, compared to 10.8 for all of Augusta.
"All of this will give us some historical data for future years," she said. "But the area has good bones, and a lot going for it."
Augusta Canal Authority Director Dayton Sherrouse said he is hopeful the Kroc Center could improve redevelopment options for the center's historic neighbor, the 518,000-square-foot Sibley Mill just across the canal.
The authority bought the mill last year, with plans to recruit a developer who could renovate the building for housing, commercial or professional space.
One of the main trends that must accompany revitalization is home ownership, said Clay Boardman, who owns real estate in Harrisburg and who successfully renovated the Enterprise Mill nearby.
"With the Kroc Center there, I hope that property prices will ultimately appreciate in the area," he said. "We still believe, though, that it's a long battle. Getting as much home ownership as possible gives a real sense of neighborhood -- and at that point, things start to radiate for the good."
Many Augustans don't fully realize the importance of Harrisburg to the entire community, said Erick Montgomery, executive director of Historic Augusta, which in 2008 placed the neighborhood at the top if its annual list of the city's Most Endangered Historic Properties.
"It's the link between a lot of things," he said. "It affects Summerville, west Augusta, downtown and the medical college. If you live in Augusta, you pretty much pass Harrisburg on a daily basis, so it is important that it be a safe community."
The Kroc Center, he said, might have arrived just in time.
"I wish I had a crystal ball," he said. "The idea is to plant a seed, and hope this one grows."
Broadway Tackle's Lesser, meanwhile, will be in a position to watch what happens.
"I could see this being a place where young doctors come to live. They could buy some of these single-family dwellings and fix them up. Wouldn't it be great if you could see nice homes with manicured lawns all along Eve and Crawford streets?"
Reach Rob Pavey and Carole Hawkins at (706) 724-0851.