Originally created 03/10/01

Officials look for mall buyer



Just because Regency Mall doesn't seem to have prospects as an enclosed shopping center doesn't mean the property has no future, members of the economic community say.

With Montgomery Ward closed and the entire 75-acre property on Gordon Highway up for sale, they say what's needed is a community-minded private investor to step in and dream up a new concept.

"It's going to have to be initiated by the private sector," said H.M. "Monty" Osteen, who has sought an appropriate match for the property for the past few years through his involvement with the community revitalization group Greater Augusta Progress.

Augusta Mayor Bob Young said he's confident the recent Wards vacancy will attract a major investor interested in consolidating the property, which is split among three owners. He said the Augusta-Richmond County government is willing to help coordinate incentives for a potential buyer.

One incentive could be the establishment of an enterprise zone.

"We could freeze tax assessments at pre-development levels, before improvements, so they don't have to take that big of a hit right away," Mr. Young said. "I'm convinced the government will be involved in some way with Regency Mall."

COMMUNITY LEADERS have considered calling the proposed enterprise zone Rocky Creek Enterprise Zone for the creek that forms a natural boundary to the property.

"Multi-use" is one of the most frequently used adjectives in discussions about the property - partly because of the property's size and partly because of its history of split ownership.

The largest portion is owned by Raleigh, N.C., investor Haywood Whichard. The other two pieces are the Montgomery Ward department store, owned by a General Electric Co. subsidiary, and the former JB White department store, owned by Mercantile Properties.

A $100,000 study funded two years ago by Greater Augusta Progress recommended a complete redevelopment to be performed in phases. Included in the plan would be a combination of commercial office space, back operation and call center space, sports-oriented retail, housing and public-use spaces.

Although Mr. Osteen remains sold on the Rocky Creek plan, others are starting to realize the study might not be an exact blueprint for future use. Short of an unlikely government effort to consolidate the property itself and steer its utilization, there are no guarantees.

MR. YOUNG said plans that called for the relocation of local government offices to the building have been scrapped because of high costs and potential public relations problems.

"Traditionally (downtown) is the seat of local government," he said.

Gene Sullivan, deputy superintendent of Richmond County schools, said one-time efforts to relocate the school system's central offices to Regency have been redirected to the vacant Davison's department store building downtown.

One south Augusta business owner, Greg Hodges of the Stokes-Hodges Auto Group, said it's a shame the plans for a government center didn't shake out.

Mr. Hodges said he doesn't have all the facts, but purchasing and renovating the mall would be "a whole lot cheaper than $40 million or $50 million on one new building downtown."

Mr. Whichard says he is ready to sell the property to the highest bidder and said he made a call to the mayor last week to reinforce that fact.

Despite any disagreements over the mall property's best use, almost everyone agrees a call center would work there. In fact, one exists next door in the much smaller Regency Exchange strip mall.

JIM GARNER, administrative support manager for the Sears Contract Sales call center, said the business has been a tenant there since 1990.

"We plan to be here at least for another five years or perhaps even longer than that," Mr. Garner said.

Regency Exchange's owner, Jim Hull, agrees a call center or other type of "back shop" operation could work on the mall property.

"The use has changed from retail to institutional, but what hasn't changed is the good location. ... The property would have an uphill climb to be used as retail again without a demolition and redevelopment."

Mr. Hull and other business leaders are very much sold on the south Augusta area. Parking lots at the nearby strip centers are routinely full. A Denny's restaurant less than a mile from the mall is investing in a new look. And Mr. Hodges says his three car dealerships along the road - Kia, Saturn and Acura - are doing better than ever.

Mr. Hodges said he and business partner Ed Stokes chose the area when they noticed the success of the Gerald Jones dealership and realized they could buy property fronting eight lanes of traffic for a relatively inexpensive price.

Mr. Hodges considers that part of town to be "the best-kept secret in Augusta." He hopes the mall can return in some way to its old capacity as a community gathering place.

That sort of high-minded thinking for low-valued property that has great potential, especially in inner cities, is part of a trend called "new urbanism."

"When property values drop to a point, it's worthwhile to come back and take look." said local developer Turner Simkins. "(South Augusta) is a part of the community we can't turn our back on. The mall is so physically gargantuan, it affects everyone else."

Steven Bodzin, a spokesman with the San Francisco-based Congress for the New Urbanism, said call centers are fine, but a smarter move economically would be to get an employer to locate there, such as computer-related media and biotechnology, which have been a good match in other areas.

Jim West, president of the Metro Augusta Chamber of Commerce, said the idea of retrofitting the mall as a research and development center might have potential; the idea just hasn't been pursued. One possible drawback, he said, would be that the mall is a few miles away from the downtown medical district.

Barring any local government intervention, the only way Regency Mall will be resurrected is if its owners will let the property go to an individual or individuals with civic minds and deep pockets.

"The land (at Regency Mall) is not going anywhere," Mr. Hull said. "There's really no bad property, just bad owners."

Reach Eric Williamson at (706) 828-3904.