Risk vs. reward

Development proposal for mills needs firm tenant

No developer would invest in a shopping center without a firm commitment from an anchor tenant. Too much risk, too little chance for reward.

Commonsense economics should also apply to developments involving taxpayers’ money. There must be assurances that the citizenry will benefit from the use of their funds.

Right now, there are no assurances that renovating the historic King and Sibley textile mills near downtown Augusta, through $12 million in special-purpose local options sales tax funds, would be money well-spent.

The renovation plan, an initiative of the Augusta Regional Collaboration Project, initially was pitched as education and residential space to accommodate the merger of Augusta State University and Georgia Health Sciences University.

Problem is, the merged institution – Georgia Regents University – hasn’t committed to occupying the estimated 1 million square feet of industrial space in the city’s Harrisburg section. In fact, a study backed by GRU’s overseers, the University System of Georgia Board of Regents, ranked the mill-campus proposal (which cost $300,000 to develop) as the least favorable of three options available.

Collaboration project Executive Director Matt Kwatinetz wants to advance the $12 million proposal by tagging it to the upcoming SPLOST
referendum – with or without GRU.

“We could just wait for some developer maybe eventually” to come along, he said at a SPLOST presentation earlier this week.

Sorry, that’s just not good enough.

Redeveloping the old mills clearly is a worthwhile initiative. Businessman Clay Boardman, who used his own money to redevelop the historic Enterprise Mill complex more than a decade ago, proved that stately buildings can live new lives as profitable, mixed-use developments.

The same potential exists for King and Sibley, which share 2,000 acres of greenspace and an ideal location along the historic Augusta Canal that ties Harrisburg redevelopment efforts to the city’s resurgent central business district.

And anyone who thinks an old industrial building can’t be turned into a classroom should see the 150-year-old former cotton and wool factory that has been converted into the GRU/University of Georgia Medical Partnership Building just a block from the main Athens campus.

If the Augusta Regional Collaboration Project could be made a reality with optimism alone, taxpayers gladly would write the check.

But in the real world, where commonsense economics apply, a $12 million investment to redevelop 130-year-old buildings without a confirmed tenant is too much risk for too little reward.

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