Originally created 01/08/01

The year in review



Most major business stories in 2000 shared a common thread - nearly all occurred outside Richmond and Columbia counties.

Burke, Aiken and Edgefield counties accounted for most of the new jobs and capital investments in the region.

2000 smiled most on the two South Carolina counties. More than a half-dozen major industrial projects materialized in Aiken and Edgefield counties, including Newman Technologies, a parts supplier to Honda Motor Co.; Shinsho American Corp., a Japanese wire-maker; and apparel giant VF Corp.

South Carolina's Aiken County was the site of the metro area's single-largest economic development project, an $80 million expansion at Kimberly-Clark's Beech Island tissue plant. The 130,000-square-foot expansion will allow the maker of Kleenex and Huggies to produce an entirely new product line.

The company is being hush-hush about what will be made there.

"We are not disclosing," said Kimberly-Clark spokeswoman Angie McCoy. "(The expansion) will support the tissue business."

Analysts speculate the new product will be some type of electrostatic wipe designed to compete with Procter & Gamble's Swiffer product.

The metro area's South Carolina side outpaced every other sector of region in new jobs and capital investment.

"This has been an especially rewarding year," said Fred Humes, director of the Economic Development Partnerhship, the chief industrial recruiter for Aiken, Edgefield and Barnwell counties.

In Richmond and Columbia counties, the only substantial new industry project announced was a $10 million brick paver plant at Boral Brick's Augusta brickyard. The new facility will create about 35 jobs.

In Columbia County, most news centered on the continuing saga of the county-owned speculative building, which has been vacant for nearly three years. It was still empty as of late December.

"It was an OK year," said Kevin Shea, senior vice president of economic development for the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce. "A lot of work was done, but not a lot has happened."

One of Richmond County's few highlights was the opening of Monsanto Co.'s $100 million Posilac plant, a project that was announced in 1998.

Of the major projects that did come to Georgia in 2000, most settled in Burke County, where land is plentiful and labor is readily available. The largest project there was the construction of the $30 million Fiamm Technologies Inc. battery plant.

Mr. Shea and other officials on the Georgia side say South Carolina's powerful incentive program is the secret to its success. Georgia's constitutionally governed incentive program does not offer private industry the same level of tax breaks and other payoffs for creating new jobs.

VF Corp., for example, picked Edgefield County as the site of its $30 million distribution facility because South Carolina's incentive package was worth about $4 million more than Georgia's.

"Aiken's done really well, unfortunately at the expense of us," Mr. Shea said. "Companies are looking for incentives. They've got a real strong program at the state level."

Adding to Richmond County's lackluster year was the debacle involving its second-largest industrial park. The property, one of the region's most marketable, fell into the hands of one of the city's biggest auto dealers when First Union Corp. decided to resurrect the unpaid mortgage on the property.

The bank note to about 69 acres of undeveloped property inside the Forward Augusta Industrial Park had been written off nearly 20 years ago by First Union and three other area institutions. But First Union gave its 40 percent interest to Ann Taylor, president of the Taylor Toyota Inc. dealership group, to settle an undisclosed "dispute."

She immediately asked the Development Authority of Richmond County, the title holder, for full payment of the principle and accrued interest - about $830,000. The authority declined to pay off the long-forgotten debt, and Ms. Taylor eventually foreclosed on the property.

She is currently using commerical real estate agents to market the property in order to profit from the deal. The incident was big news among economic developers, but the news that affected the entire business community occured at Augusta Regional Airport at Bush Field.

Delta Air Lines decided to end jet service and allow its wholly owned commuter subsidiary, Atlantic Southeast Airlines, to handle all Atlanta-bound flights with small regional jets and turboprops.

On the upside, Delta announced that Comair, another commuter affiliate, would begin offering two daily non-stop Augusta-to-Cincinnati flights Dec. 1, giving the Garden City access to a third hub city, after Atlanta and Charlotte.

However, the changes resulted in about 80 fewer passenger seats per day from Augusta, and Delta still controls pricing and scheduling for more than 60 percent of the city's flights.

The jury is out on whether the change-up will yield long-term benefits.

"I'm still a little disappointed in the service we're getting here now," airport commission Chairman Ed Skinner said.

While travel options at the city's airport expanded, the number of large, local company headquarters continued shrinking. The year 2000 saw the $160 million sale of Marks & Morgan, a family-owned jewelry chain with 137 stores, to London-based jewelry retailer Signet Group PLC, whose other holdings include Kay Jewelers.

The homegrown Smile Gas chain, which was acquired for $69.5 million in 1999 by Circle K owner Tosco Corp., disappeared for good during the summer and fall of 2000 as the company converted the 67-store chain to the new brand.

Aiken, meanwhile, added Washington Group International's government division to its list of major economic players. The $2 billion subsidiary, which operates high-tech government installations such as Savannah River Site and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, announced it would build a $6 million headquarters in downtown Aiken.

In Augusta, officials hoped to develop some high-tech industry of their own by helping create the Georgia Medical Center Authority. The 15-member board will attempt to establish Augusta as a hotbed for private biotechnology research using the Medical College of Georgia as a backbone.

"Our true goal is economic development," said Jim Finger, authority board member and president of Columbia County-based Network Data Services. "We're looking to create an entirely new industry here."

The medical authority's marriage of private industry and politicos may prove to be a recipe for success. But business and politics didn't mix so well in Aiken during the Bridgestone/Firestone tire recall controversy.

The three-year-old plant, one of the company's main sources of recall replacement tires, became the focus of South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon's campaign to get the Palmetto State moved up on the replacement priority list.

He argued the company should expedite supply of replacement tires to South Carolina because of the lucrative tax incentives the state offered the company to locate in Aiken.

But in the end, South Carolina recieved its tires in accordance with the company's replacement plan, and local officials chided Mr. Condon for what they called political posturing.

"He's just grandstanding," said Tim Dangerfield, chairman for the Economic Development Partnership.

The Bridgestone/Firestone recall was a media circus. But the circus atmosphere outside the Masters Tournament ended in 2000 thanks to local members of the Augusta National Golf Club and the local government.

Through local member and prominent banker Boone Knox, the club put a stop to the increasing sidewalk bazaar by purchasing or leasing nearly every available piece of real estate surrounding the tournament.

City officials, at the urging of Mayor Bob Young, strictly enforced setback and land-use ordinances, including the city's law prohibiting retail activity on residential property.

"For the last two years, we've enforced those laws and ordinances," Mr. Young said. "We're not doing this to put anybody out of business; we're doing it to protect the residential character of the surrounding neighborhoods."

NAME CHANGES

Several local businesses changed names in 2000, including:

BP Amoco's polymers business was acquired by Belgium-based Solvay SA. The Augusta polymers plant will adopt the name in 2001.

Local Shoney's restaurants were converted to Jonnie's after their sale to an Arizona-based restaurant group.

Augusta-based appliance maker Frigidaire Home Products changed its name to Electrolux Home Products after its Swedish-based parent company, Electrolux AB, secured the rights to use the Electrolux name in the United States.

Cumulus Media Inc.'s cluster of seven local radio stations are being acquired by Clear Channel Communications Inc. in a $52 million deal involving more than 45 stations in eight markets.

All Augusta Rally's quick-serve hamburger restaurants were converted to Checkers after their sale to a new franchisee.

The former Monsanto Co. phosphates plant on Marvin Griffin Road, which became Solutia in 1997 and Astaris LLC in 1999, was acquired by Prayon Inc. in 2000.

Circle K owner Tosco Corp. finished conversion of all Augusta-area Smile Gas convenience stores.

Augusta-based tool maker Greenfield Industries, a division of Kennametal Inc. since 1997, was renamed Kennametal Industrial Products Group.

Local dot-com company eschoolz.com changed its name to e2Procure Solutions Group to reflect its shift toward a business-to-business Web portal.

R.I.P

Some companies didn't survive 2000, including:

Semolina International Pasta Inc., a victim of competition from Carrabba's Italian Grill and Macaroni Grill, similar-themed restaurants.

Synalloy Corp. closed its Augusta Blackman Uhler Chemical facility to consolidate operations in Spartanburg, S.C.

Duke Restaurant owner David Duke closed Walton Way eatery after 44 years in business.

Charter Augusta Behavioral Health Systems was one of 33 Charter mental health facilities to close after the Alpharetta, Ga.-based company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Second-run theaters Regency 8 and Columbia Theaters closed within weeks of each other, a reflection of the pain being felt in the overbuilt theater industry.

Heilig Meyers Co. announced the closure of three Augusta-area stores, part of the furniture company's Chapter 11 plan eliminating 302 stores nationwide.

Coburn Furniture Co. closed in downtown Augusta.

Discount retailer Phar-Mor closed its Wrightsboro Road store, citing poor financial performance.

American Anodize Corp., a Barnwell, S.C.-based supplier of anodized window frames, went out of business in its first year of operation.

REAL ESTATE ROUNDUP

Several major properties changed hands in 2000, including:

Riverwood Plantation, a 2,200-acre planned housing development whose centerpiece included the proposed Big Three golf course, was acquired from Canal Industries Inc. by Augusta-based Pollard Lumber Co. for $8 million. Pollard plans to begin development next year.

The First Union Bank midrise tower in downtown Augusta was bought by Richmond Enterprises LLC, a venture backed by local businessmen William S. Morris III and Paul S. Simon. The building was acquired for $7.95 million. The new owners plan to renovate the 17-story facility and continue operating it as rental office space.

James Brown bought the former First Federal Savings and Loan Association building for $1 million from SouthTrust Corp. The legendary soul singer plans to use the four-story Broad Street landmark as his new base of operations. His west Augusta office was destroyed in an arson fire earlier in the year.

Aiken-based Wyatt Development Co. has an option on 30 acres of land in Evans that would be developed as a shopping center with Wal-Mart as the major tenant. A sale had not closed as of late December.

The Walton's Corner shopping center was purchased for $3 million by a group of local investors led by Blanchard & Calhoun Commercial Corp. executives, who plan to transform the ailing strip mall into an upscale retail property.

Developers for Walgreen Co. are reportedly spending more than $3 million acquiring land in Richmond and Columbia counties for at least three new Walgreens drug stores. Stores will be located on lots near the intersections of Bobby Jones Expressway and Washington Road; Columbia and Belair roads; and Windsor Spring and Peach Orchard roads.

Augusta-based Hull/Storey Development LLC purchased the Orchard Square shopping center from CC Realty Fund LLC for $4.5 million. The company is currently developing a $15 million Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse on the property, located at the crossroads of Windsor Spring and Peach Orchard roads.

Louisville, Ga.-based First National Bank & Trust Co. bought the former Veterans Mortgage building on Columbia Road for $1 million and converted it into the its first full-service bank branch in Augusta.

Columbia auto dealer Jim Hudson acquired the Gold's Gym property in the Martinez area for $1.9 million. He plans to redevelop the 2.9-acre site as the city's first Lexus dealership.

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486 or bized@augustachronicle.com.