Originally created 12/14/01

Auto mall planned for area



Auto dealer Andy Jones and real estate agent Joe Hamilton spent nearly three years looking for the perfect site for a dealership in Columbia County.

No matter where they looked, no matter how many market studies they did, all roads led to one place - Columbia Square shopping center.

The 16-acre property, split by Flowing Wells Road and bordered by Washington and Columbia roads, is at the gateway to the county's booming bedroom neighborhoods. More than 47,000 cars pass by every day, each one containing a potential customer.

"You put all the pieces together, and it makes a lot of sense," said Mr. Hamilton, the vice president of Sherman & Hemstreet Inc.

Perhaps most important, the 28-year-old development was ripe for the picking.

Years of neglect from longtime owner Equitable Life Assurance Society, a subsidiary of New York-based AXA Financial Inc., made the center unattractive to big name retailers.

More than half of the center's 140,000 square feet of retail space was vacant when Mr. Jones purchased the property last month for $2.3 million with plans of converting it into a $25 million auto mall.

"It will definitely be a showcase," Mr. Jones said.

Though Columbia Square boasts one of the best locations in the metro area, it had been somewhat of a puzzle for local investors, who have been unable to make the property work as a retail center.

For one, the property's 53,000-square-foot anchor tenant space, occupied from the beginning by the Rose's discount store chain, is too small to attract big-box retailers such as Target, Kmart and Wal-Mart.

In addition, Rose's $2 per-square-foot lease - ridiculously low by today's standards - scared away potential buyers and discouraged the previous owner from reinvesting in the property.

Mr. Jones and Mr. Hamilton solved the problem by eliminating Rose's from the equation. Mr. Jones declined to say how he broke the retailer's lease or how much it cost him. An official at Variety Wholesalers Inc. - Rose's parent company in Raleigh, N.C. - declined to comment on when the store will close.

Most of Columbia Square's other tenants, with the exception of CiCi's Pizza and Goodwill Industries, have agreed to relocate across Flowing Wells Road to the center's Phase 2, which Mr. Jones said he will renovate.

Mr. Jones said he expects to reach agreements with CiCi's and Goodwill soon. The 5,300-square-foot Goodwill space is slated to become an Audi dealership, and CiCi's an Isuzu dealership. If arrangements cannot be made, Mr. Jones said, he simply will hold off on developing those showrooms until the existing leases expire.

Mr. Jones is hopeful he can relocate all six of the new-car franchises, one by one, from his two Gordon Highway locations by 2003. Those locations will become used-car sales and service centers.

Mr. Jones' Mazda-Isuzu-Suzuki dealership in North Augusta will be unchanged.

Volkswagen will occupy the space adjacent to the existing Goodwill storefront, followed by Honda, Isuzu and Volvo. A Suzuki dealership will cap off the retail strip's southernmost end. The auto mall will employ about 250 people and have space for more than 450 cars.

Mr. Jones said initially he wanted only a new location for his Volkswagen dealership, which is cramped at its current location, where it is paired with Audi and Volvo. But he changed his mind after realizing he could create the area's first auto mall.

He said his move out of Richmond County has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with Columbia County's fast growth and high household incomes.

"If my (market research) said I should be on Tobacco Road, I would have moved there," he said.

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



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