Originally created 07/05/99

Restoring Regency



Every week, Dolly Kent drives her Buick more than 50 miles from her home in Gibson to Regency Mall. She goes to the shopping center to get her hair fixed and buy new outfits. She's been shopping there for more than two decades.

For the 87-year-old widow, the shopping center holds fond memories. She remembers when the mall, among other shops, had a Picadilly Cafeteria and her husband used to take her there to eat every Sunday.

But lately Regency Mall is different.

"It has changed so much," Mrs. Kent said.

On some days, it is so empty you can hear the echo of your own footsteps.

Of the 43,000 shopping centers in the United States, only about 1,800 are enclosed malls, said Malachy Kavanagh, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers in New York. Many other malls, constructed during the shopping center building boom of the mid- to late-1980s, also are in need of new investments and fresh concepts.

"Only the strongest survive," Mr. Kavanagh said.

Regency Mall, once the largest mall in Georgia, has been steadily declining since the early '90s. Attempts to revive it have failed. Now, some city officials and others say they are serious about fixing the troubled center.

One idea is to duplicate what was done to the Eastgate Mall in Chattanooga, Tenn. South Miami, Fla.-based town planners Dover, Kohl & Partners proposed that failing mall be turned into a "town center" -- a main street-type place where people live, work and shop. There, the owners are aggressively working to make that happen.

Regency Mall's current owner, Haywood Whichard has been coy about his plans for the shopping center. The North Carolina businessman has said he wants to sell the mall, but hasn't set a price on it.

Augusta is spending $100,000 as part of a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to study what can be done with the mall. The project falls under HUD grant guidelines because it deals with urban blight issues and low-income employment opportunities.

There may be many possibilities for Regency Mall.

A tale of two malls

On July 27, 1978, Regency Mall celebrated its grand opening.

For one week, it was the area's only enclosed shopping center.

On Aug. 3 that same year, the Augusta Mall opened.

Mall developers Edward J. DeBartolo Corp. and Rouse Co. had been locked in a race to open the first mall for years. DeBartolo Corp. built Regency Mall at the intersection of Gordon Highway and Deans Bridge Road. Rouse Co. built the Augusta Mall off of Wrightsboro Road near the Bobby Jones Expressway.

The new shopping centers ushered in a new era in business. It signaled the end of downtown's retail dominance. Most of the department stores moved to the malls.

On opening day, about 70 percent of Regency Mall's 139 stores were occupied. Thousands of cars filled the parking lot, and more than 40,000 shoppers flooded the retail center.

Corporate chief Edward J. DeBartolo was on hand for the ribbon cutting.

DeBartolo Corp. was known for its extravagant malls across the country. In 1978, the company owned 36 malls and planned to open 20 more. It also owned horse racing tracks, hotels, office complexes and a football team -- the San Francisco 49ers.

Regency Mall had two levels and four anchors: Montgomery Ward, J.B. White, Belk and Cullum's. A three-screen movie theater was added later.

Augusta Mall also had two levels, but only two anchor stores, Rich's and Davison's -- which later became Macy's. Sears, J.C. Penney and J.B. White had not been built yet. It had about 100 stores.

In 1978, there were a lot of questions about how the malls would affect Augusta. Would the shopping centers add to the tax base and draw customers from miles away? Would they kill business downtown?

Could both malls survive?

DeBartolo's manager of mall operations Vincent DeFranco said they would.

The Augusta Chronicle quoted him predicting some "good, friendly competition," but also saying he was confident that all the people putting up the money to build two malls wouldn't have done it "if they didn't think both malls could be successful."

Regency's decline

But Mr. DeFranco was wrong.

Augusta Mall kept growing while Regency Mall began to decline.

After Regency Mall was built, the Augusta area's more affluent subdivisions moved west and urban decay moved in. There is much speculation regarding why.

Some believe that it fell on hard times because the owners failed to take care of it, while others point to changing demographics, traffic patterns and negative perceptions about south Augusta.

One of the first indications that Regency Mall was in trouble was in 1993. That year, at least seven stores left the mall, including Upton's department store.

Two years later, the Edward J. DeBartolo Corp. transferred ownership of the mall to mortgage holder Equitable Real Estate Investment Management Inc. of Atlanta. Equitable Real Estate forgave $12.5 million of DeBartolo's debt.

From there, the situation got worse.

"It was a slow process," said Barry Azeem, manager of Watches Unlimited, one of the few stores left at the mall. "One store closed and others followed. The mall needed better management."

In 1996, the Augusta-Richmond County consolidated government was considering a plan to buy or lease space at the mall to consolidate offices.

In 1997, two Raleigh, N.C., businessmen -- Mr. Whichard and Paul Woo -- bought the mall for $4.15 million. It was valued at eight times that much, at about $33.5 million in 1991, according to tax records.

The mall continued to decline.

Belk closed. J.B. White moved to the Augusta Mall. Montgomery Ward, the last remaining anchor, boarded the entrance into the mall. The department store was losing too much cool air in the summer and warm air in the winter through the opening to the cavernous shopping center.

In February, the owners tried to sell the mall at auction. An Atlanta businessman offered $2.08 million for it.

The owners turned the offer down. The bid was much too low, they said.

After that, the partnership started to fray.

The owners couldn't agree on how to cut their losses.

Eventually, they asked their lenders to foreclose on the property. The issue would be resolved at auction. The partner willing to take on the risk could outbid the other. One partner would own the mall, the other would be free from it. This time though, the best offer couldn't be turned down.

The second public auction was in April.

Mr. Whichard paid $2.7 million to buy out his partner.

Saving the mall

Economic development leaders recognize the need to revitalize the mall.

"It is almost empty and we need to get someone in there," Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce vice president Kevin Shea said. "There just seems to be a lot of unknowns."

One question is, What does the owner want to do with Regency Mall?

Other than Montgomery Ward and the Richmond County Health Department, which has a small office in the mall to hold programs for teen-agers, the only stores left in the mall now are: D&S Cafeteria, Foot Action, Foot Locker, General Nutrition Center, Happenings, International Formalwear, King's Jewelry, Nail Pizazz and Watches Unlimited.

The owner has said he wants to sell Regency Mall.

When Mr. Whichard owned the property with Mr. Woo, they considered refurbishing the 75-acre, 802,335-square-foot shopping center. But the multimillion dollar price tag was more than they wanted to risk.

In the past two years, several groups have expressed an interest in buying the mall, Mr. Whichard and Mr. Woo have said. But no money has been exchanged.

One group of local investors, AMC Development, said it wanted to buy the mall and turn it into an entertainment complex. It even sent letters to potential new tenants.

But that group, Mr. Whichard said, probably doesn't have the money.

If it does, he added, it is not serious about buying the mall.

Mr. Whichard owns several malls throughout the country.

In one interview, he said malls are like bananas -- you get some at one price and get rid of them at another. Some of them go bad. Those you throw out.

But some believe the mall is worth saving.

Augusta Mayor Bob Young, who went to Chattanooga with other local leaders to see Eastgate Mall, said Augusta needs to study what can be done with Regency Mall. Maybe what needs to be done is something like the Eastgate project, he said. Maybe it's not.

Either way, he said, they need to start thinking "out of the box."

The city has authorized Greater Augusta Progress, a local development group, to spend $100,000 to study Regency Mall and come up with a plan. If the plan looks good, investors may be interested.

Greater Augusta Progress wants to have the study results by November.

The interest in Regency Mall is encouraging to shoppers like Mrs. Kent.

She has been wishing someone would save Regency Mall for a long time. But as she ages, her faith that the once regal shopping center will ever be restored is diminishing.

"I don't think I'll be alive to see it come back," she said.

Frank Witsil can be reached at (706) 823-3352.