Originally created 05/23/01

Downtown block seeks tenants



On the odd-numbered side of the 600 block of Broad Street, after you pass the First Union building, a shower of broken glass can remain on the sidewalk for weeks without getting swept away.

It's not that nobody cares; it's just that tenants are scarce in that stretch. And only a few ideas have come up to revitalize the zone.

During the day, employees of CSRA Advertising Specialties and PM&A Consulting Engineers Inc. do business in their own well-kept spaces on the block.

At night, strippers conduct an entirely different type of business at the Marine Room.

The other nine addresses on that side of the street are unoccupied.

The vacancies are a peculiarity because, for the most part, activity immediately surrounds that stretch of block in every direction. The First Union building, Ramada Hotel, Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce and Augusta Museum of History form an imperfect ring around the empty business fronts.

Barrett Plumbing Supply is the most recent tenant to move from the block, relocating to a larger store on Mike Padgett Highway.

Owner Matt Barrett said he moved his company in order to expand, but he said there are a number of problems inherent with the area: limited foot traffic, an absence of synergy with other businesses in the area and a lack of parking.

Current parking is limited for daytime businesses. The street is narrower than in the 500 block, and visitors to the chamber often claim much of the center island parking.

Adding to the disincentive for retail is a downtown operations tax on inventory that makes it more expensive for retailers to do business.

"They've just taxed everybody so that they can't make a living down there," said Mr. Barrett, who is still moving items from his old location to the new one. "Food and liquor - that's about it downtown. That's not (exclusively) what you want. You want a big mix of people and of businesses. I don't think the mix is there anymore."

Evolving plans in the vicinity of the odd-numbered addresses might help 600 block catch up with other redevelopment efforts, however.

Developer Deke Copenhaver said he is in the early stages of his efforts to convert the old Commerce building across the street at 670 Broad into condominiums. The upscale units are still in the planning stage.

In the more distant future, as part of redevelopment group Augusta Tomorrow's vision for downtown, the riverfront property between Fifth and Sixth streets could become home to a midrise, mixed-use facility like that of Port Royal.

Both projects, developers say, will draw additional people to the area. The increased activity could build momentum toward filling the vacancies.

"It certainly would help. With the museum there, it's developing into an attractive area," said Fred Steiner, a real estate agent for Sherman and Hemstreet Inc. Realtors. His company owns the corner space at 601 Broad St., which has been vacant since Savannah River Site management moved one of its off-campus offices a few years ago.

Another boon to the north side of the block would be the addition of a parking deck. Paul Simon, president of Augusta Riverfront Limited Partnership, the company that owns the First Union building, said no concrete plans exist as of yet. He said tenants and customers of the First Union high-rise and other businesses would stand to benefit, however. The parking deck would adjoin the high-rise's existing back parking area.

"Obviously there's more need for parking and some of that space could be used for parking, but there's no plan for anything right now," he said.

On the more immediate horizon, Mr. Simon said, the two-story First Union office space adjoining the high-rise will undergo renovation for a leaky roof so that the space can be reclaimed.

Those with interests in the 600-block strip agree business-to-business operations and professional offices are the most likely fit for the vacancies because they require fewer parking spaces.

CSRA Advertising Specialties owner Bruce Parker said he has no plans of relocating.

"We've been here two and a half years," he said. "We're not dependent on walk-in traffic, but we do have a show room window that helps people see what we do for a living. The proximity of the chamber of commerce in front of me with business people coming in and out and prospective new business coming into the city doesn't hurt, either."

Mr. Parker said he would gladly welcome a parking deck and any other improvements.

"A parking structure may dictate what kind of businesses come in," he said.

Mr. Barrett said creative, cooperative thinking could help fill the void. One approach, he said, could be to promote Augusta's Revolutionary War history downtown.

"We could have a Fort Augusta in the parking lot where the Augusta Museum of History is," he said. The foot traffic would encourage other entrepreneurs to open businesses on the 600 block, he argued.

He said the attraction could be promoted by repetitious interstate billboards much in the way South of the Border in Dillon, S.C., is marketed.

Reach Eric Williamson at (706) 828-3904.