Beverly Fuller remembers the first time she went to the Augusta Mall.
It was shortly after it opened in 1978. She bought a long wool coat with a hood and shopped mostly at Rich's department store.
"It was wonderful," she recalled.
Now, 20 years later, Mrs. Fuller is shopping at the mall with her children -- Melissa, Abby and D.J. They have many more stores from which to choose, and there are other shopping centers within a few miles of the mall -- Augusta Exchange, Augusta West Plaza, smaller centers and individual stores.
And soon, they might be able to go ice skating at a new rink, catch a flick at a new movie complex and dine at new restaurants. The area off Bobby Jones Expressway near Wrightsboro and Wheeler roads has become a regional shopping hub -- a Mecca for thousands of consumers a day.
Augusta Mall general manager Linda Hardin calls it "the critical mass of retail development in the area."
While the retail boom brings customers to the area and gives people places to shop, it also brings the frustration of waiting in gridlock and gives traffic engineers a headache. There is doubt the congestion will ease up anytime soon.
Rather than spreading throughout the Augusta area, commercial retail development seems to be converging on the same place. The reason seems to be because it is centrally located to population centers that have higher incomes and buying power -- west Augusta and Columbia County residents, said George Patty, executive director of the Augusta-Richmond County Planning Commission.
Another reason, he said, is it has easy access from an interstate.
"That's almost mandatory, today," Mr. Patty said.
The newest and fastest-growing center is the Augusta Exchange.
Three years ago, Atlanta developer Jim Timberlake recalls, the Augusta Exchange was a vacant lot with trees. Since then, it has expanded to more than 400,000 square feet of shopping area, with a new road and parking. It is only about 60 percent developed.
The first stores, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond and Sports Authority opened in 1997. Plans for the center include about a dozen more stores and a possible movie theater with stadium-style seating.
The center could be complete in about 18 months, Mr Timberlake said.
The reason the area is so successful, Mr. Timberlake said, is because it has easy access and is located near the Bobby Jones Expressway.
"I would say the county has done some pretty good planning," he said.
Augusta West Plaza, a 207,950-square-foot center with more than 20 stores, expects to add a half-dozen stores. It opened in 1991 and is managed by Insignia Retail Group, headquartered in New York and Dallas.
"It seems like the Augusta market is strong," said Bill Ridenour, the Insignia leasing manager in Nashville. From his perspective, retail businesses seem to be developing close together. It is convenient for consumers who like to do their shopping in one area. "It's kind of a trend of how things are going across the country," he said.
In March, Athlete's Foot built an 11,700-square-foot store near the Plaza.
An ice skating rink, the IceForum, is scheduled to open in the fall on Augusta West Parkway near the shopping center. The IceForum will serve as the practice home of the Augusta Lynx, a minor-league hockey team.
And the Augusta Mall, which opened 20 years ago with two anchors and 95 stores, has expanded recently too. It now has five anchors and more than 140 stores. The most recent anchor to open, J.B. White, has 165,000 square feet.
All this development in west Augusta represents a shift in the retail center from downtown, where it was more than 20 years ago. The easy access allows customers living in the less cosmopolitan area outside Augusta to get to the area.
But with all this commercial development, some shoppers say, there is a price to pay -- traffic congestion.
The main traffic problem is the interchange at Bobby Jones Expressway and Wrightsboro Road, said Jim Huffstetler, Augusta-Richmond County consolidated government's traffic engineer. That is causing a bottleneck.
Shoppers trying to exit the mall and get on the expressway or exit the expressway and enter the mall are locking up the intersection, Mr. Huffstetler said. More than 31,000 cars a day passed along Wrightsboro Road, according to a study taken last year.
To ease some congestion, the Georgia Department of Transportation is doing a study on interchanges and Mr. Huffstetler wants to have a study done on Wrightsboro Road.
But relief does not seem likely this century, the engineer said.
Crews are working to widen Interstate 520 to six lanes for about 3 miles from the Columbia County line to Gordon Highway. They will also expand the eastbound exit ramp on Wrightsboro Road, where traffic sometimes backs up on the expressway. It is a $22.3 million project and is scheduled for completion by July 2000, transportation officials said.
"It just increases the capacity on Bobby Jones," said Rusty Merritt, area engineer with the Department of Transportation. "It gives people a little more room to maneuver."
But Mr. Huffstetler doesn't believe that the expressway construction will resolve the problem. The interchange needs to be redesigned, he said. And it may be three years before any work on that begins.
In the mean time, Mr. Huffstetler suggests, shoppers use alternative routes to and from the mall that don't pass though that intersection.
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