Originally created 05/15/00

Land values jump in growing county

When Vince and Rachael Robertson bought 3-1/2 acres on Washington Road in Evans, they didn't know they were buying a winning lottery ticket.

Since they bought their first parcel in 1944, they've been patiently and consistently buying the property around them. Property that is now the cornerstone for what will soon be the Evans Town Center. Property that is now considered one of the most valuable pieces of commercial real estate in the county.

"We put our piece of property together in six different parcels," said Mr. Robertson, who is a licensed master mechanic and once had an electrical contracting business with his wife, Rachael, as the company's secretary. "As land would become available, we would make every attempt to get it. I always envisioned that as one day being a valuable piece of property."

He had 20/20 vision.

The property that he paid about $100,000 for is now worth an estimated $2 million.

Some families, such as the Robertsons, long ago had the foresight to invest in Columbia County's future - an investment now paying off in escalating property values.

Commercial Realtor Mike Graybill said Washington Road frontage is selling for an average of $2,000 to $3,000 per square foot, and he and others predict Washington Road will continue its commercial expansion all the way to Pollard's Corner.

For now, the area designated for the Evans Town Center is the target of current commercial development. And the Robertsons' property is the bullseye.

Fronting Washington Road is Strictly County, a collectibles shop owned and operated by Mrs. Robertson in a turn-of-the-century clapboard building that was once a teacher's dormitory for the former Evans High School. In 1998, the family opened a Huddle House restaurant facing Industrial Park Drive, one of nine they now own.

"When we bought it, it was really very much country at that time," Mr. Robertson said. "That Industrial Park Drive that runs in front of Huddle House did not exist. Belair Road dead-ended at Washington Road. The rest of it was just country. Rachael and I both knew that the county was growing very rapidly, and we knew it would be a valuable piece of property, and it apparently is."

There have been many offers to buy the corner, Mr. Robertson said, but now with two thriving businesses on the land, it is unlikely anyone could afford it. And the Robertsons are not entirely enticed by money, because Mrs. Robertson is very active in the daily operation of her business.

"We just had in mind putting together as much as we could on that corner and holding it for the future," Mr. Robertson said. "The Lord was with us."

But while the Evans Town Center may be a great place for business, it's not such a good place for learning. Columbia County School Superintendent Tommy Price said the school system has entertained offers to buy the Evans Middle School campus, approximately 30 acres at the corner of Belair and Washington roads.

"Certainly, the location is not ideal for a school in this day and time, since so much commercial development has occurred around it, and it's sitting at that very busy intersection," said Mr. Price. "But the fact is, it is a school and there is still a lot of life left in that building, even though it is one of our older buildings.

"The replacement cost to move that school is $11-plus million. While the board would probably love the opportunity for someone to take that property off our hands and compensate us satisfactorily to move that site, that's never occurred to date. We've had a few people who expressed interest, but those who made an offer never came to the level to sell the property, abandon it and replace it. But should that ever happen, we would want to look hard at some options available to us."

HEAD:The right stuff

Mr. Graybill said the driving force behind any commercial development is the quality of life a community has to offer, and the people with income to support business.

Columbia County has all that.

He has a demographic map to illustrate his point, one that shows a large red area north of Interstate 20. This is a densely populated area, including households with $45,000-plus incomes.

"Thirty years ago, the census showed that there were 9,000 people in Columbia County," Mr. Graybill said. "Washington Road was a dirt road; Bobby Jones didn't exist, and Belair Road was not significant. Now at that intersection (Washington and Belair) you have one of the county's major churches and a school. You've got the households there, the spendable income, traffic corridors that can carry large amounts of traffic and daytime employment. That area is the crossroads of all growth in the county."

Mr. Graybill recently sold a parcel of land to Applebee's restaurant for $515,000 on Belair Road near that intersection.

David Clem, a commercial and industrial appraiser for Columbia County's Tax Office, sees the growth occurring every day. The commercial development, he said, will increase the county's tax digest and offer some relief to property taxpayers.

"The CVS pharmacy at the corner of Belair and Hereford Farm Road was once four residential lots," Mr. Clem said. "Combined, I would say the market value of those four parcels would maybe be $200,000. That turned into $2 million for the 1999 digest after they bought the lots, bulldozed the houses, built a parking lot and then built the CVS.

"They paid $400,000 for the land, but we had it listed as residential, and when they bought it, they had it rezoned for commercial. We knew the land was more valuable as commercial, but we had to appraise it as residential as long as those folks lived there."

Because Washington Road is a main artery through Evans, it is a natural place for commercial growth, said Columbia County Developer Frank Mullins, who is now extending Owens Road across Washington Road into his family's 125 acres.

"I think the most valuable pieces are at the Washington Road corridor and at its major intersections, like Washington and Belair, and Washington and Owens, the one I'm working on now," said Mr. Mullins, who sold 1.1 acres at Washington Road and Owens Road to A&W Oil for $404,000. "As it continues to develop on out, all the new intersections that are created in that Washington Road corridor will be the most valuable areas."

When Mr. Mullins completes the project extending Owens Road, it will provide an avenue for commercial and retail development. And he has big plans in mind - plans to develop an upscale retail center, "a Surrey Center on steriods."

County Planning Director Kendal Jones said the county has experienced an explosion of commercial growth in the past decade, growth that will surely continue as the population climbs to an estimated 100,000 by 2002, according to The Georgia County Guide.

"When I moved here in 1991, other than a few grocery stores and gas stations, there was virtually no commercial development," she said. "It's amazing what's happened since then. We have some shopping; we've got restaurant development; we've got the medical facilities that are moving out here and the movie theater. I think we'll continue to see the same type of development and we'll see some larger retail development, just because our population is getting to the point where it can support it. We're starting to need it. The Augusta Exchange has helped, but it would be nice to have something of our own."

Reach Melissa Hall at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 113, or ccchron@augustachronicle.com.


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