AIKEN -- The city's north side, a sleeping giant for years, is beginning to rub the slumber from its eyes, city officials say.
Despite its proximity to Interstate 20, commercial and residential development in north Aiken lags considerably behind Whiskey Road, Pine Log Road and the rest of south Aiken.
But city leaders say recent developments in north Aiken are leading the way for a new prosperous era for the area.
A Food Lion grocery store opened on Rutland Drive in the mid-1990s. A CVS drug store is under construction at the corner of Rutland and York Street. An industrial park will be built on Rutland. And major improvements are planned for the Aiken Municipal Airport and nearby city-operated industrial parks.
"We've seen some growth on the north side, and we expect that growth to continue," said City Manager Steve Thompson.
Aiken leaders long have had high hopes for the city's north side.
After Interstate 20 was built, many predicted the highway would help spur major development along U.S. Highway 1 south of the exit.
But the building boom never came. After the Savannah River Site opened southeast of the city, housing subdivisions such as Gem Lakes, Houndslake and Woodside Plantation sprouted in south Aiken.
As residential communities grew on the south side, so too did business development along Whiskey and Pine Log roads.
In the 1980s city leaders began focusing attention on attracting developers to the north side. In anticipation of future development, the city spent millions of dollars installing new water and sewer systems along U.S. Highway 1 and Rutland Drive.
Now the fruits of their labor finally are beginning to blossom, city officials say.
Summit Business Center, a 700-acre private venture being built between Rutland Drive and Reynolds Pond Road, is expected to break ground in March.
The facility, designed to attract light industry and small businesses, will feature 10,000- and 15,000-square-foot buildings for light manufacturing and service companies, according to developer Fields Real Estate Securities Corp.
The first phase of construction will result in 10 buildings that could provide up to 200 jobs. Complete construction will take about five years.
"The south side is basically built out," said Jerry Waters, a co-owner of the Summit Business Center property. "Now the focus is shifting (to the north side)."
Several big improvements are planned for Aiken Municipal Airport.
City officials hope the improvements will not only increase air traffic at the airport but help spur growth at the two city-operated industrial parks near the facility.
A five-year plan calls for about $4 million in airport improvements. That's about double what the city spent on airport renovations between 1985 and 1995.
The city also embarked on a major landscaping program along U.S. 1 during the last three years in the hopes of enticing development, said Aiken Planning and Development Director Roger LeDuc.
Even U.S. 1 from the city limits to the I-20 exit was expanded to a four-lane road in the mid-1990s.
The city has seen more interest from prospective developers in the north side the past few months, Mr. LeDuc said.
At least some of this interest, Mr. LeDuc said, is being generated by last year's announcement that Bridgestone/Firestone would build a tire plant outside Aiken.
"Bridgestone/Firestone has opened the eyes of a lot of people throughout the country (about Aiken)," he said.
Eventually, city officials hope that if commercial and industrial development picks up in north Aiken, so too will residential growth.
"I do believe the conditions are right (for north-side development)," Mr. LeDuc said. "I don't believe any one thing makes the difference, but a combination of things have gotten people's interests for the north side."
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