Originally created 09/14/99

Firm plans center near Army base



A local real estate developer is transforming a once trash-filled lot in south Richmond County into an upscale shopping center.

New restaurants and retail shops eventually will occupy sections of a 16-acre parcel at the northwest corner of Tobacco and Morgan roads, according to developer Robert Watkins.

The yet-to-be-named complex, which is being marketed by Augusta-based commercial brokerage Graybill & Associates, will be commercially unique for the area, Mr. Watkins said.

Pawn shops, strip clubs, liquor stores and bars -- the types of businesses commonly found outside military installations -- will not be allowed, he said.

"This is going to be a first-class shopping center," he said. "There's not going to be any junk out there."

Mr. Watkins said he will submit a site plan to county officials this week and plans to finish preparation work in the fall, with construction starting early next year.

The project's centerpiece will be a 50,000-square-foot strip mall, Mr. Watkins said.

Mr. Watkins said he plans to finance the $8 million to $10 million project with the pending sale of his chain of assisted-living centers to a Florida-based company.

Mr. Watkins' company, Doge Inc., owns and operates 13 centers throughout Georgia, including Knob Hill in Evans.

A 4,500-square-foot organic vegetable market, which Mr. Watkins will own and operate, will face Morgan Road.

Remaining parcels along Tobacco Road most likely will be offered to retail or restaurant chains.

That interests officials at Fort Gordon, who long have complained about the lack of family-oriented businesses in the area.

"We're always interested in any sort of quality development that supports soldiers and their families," Fort Gordon Public Information Officer Henry Holmes said.

Graybill agent Bill DeLoach said he has "tentative agreements" from several national franchises.

"It's a great location. The population is growing and so is the traffic," he said.

Plans call for access points on both Tobacco and Morgan roads. Morgan Road will be widened to three lanes as part of a city improvement project.

Mr. Watkins started buying up corner lots early this year and spent the past several weeks clearing the land of dilapidated homes and old commercial buildings.

His crews also have been cleaning up the property, which included an illegal dump filled with about 200 junk cars, 8,000 old tires, and animal carcasses.

"It was a mess out there," City Planning Director George Patty said.

Mr. Watkins said the project's only sticking point is a neighboring 0.6-acre parcel along Tobacco Road, currently occupied by A-Awesome Jewelry & Pawn and R&D Automotive.

He wants to acquire the property, which he considers an "eyesore" in its current condition, but claims the owner is asking for an "outrageous" amount.

But the property's owners, Charles and Annette Hartley of Martinez, said the offer made to them through Mr. Watkins' attorney was "ridiculous."

"We're not just going to give it away," Mrs. Hartley said.

Unless the two sides agree on a price, Mr. Watkins said he intends to screen the Hartley's property from his project with creative landscaping and possibly a fence.

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486.