Originally created 03/03/03

Officials hope to revitalize Martinez



Nancy Lunde would love to do most of her shopping in Martinez, but her shopping binges seem to take her to Augusta Mall and the Augusta Exchange shopping center.

"Martinez is too hard to get to," she said. "And then, there's only a couple of stores and restaurants. I like to have all the options Augusta Exchange and the mall offer."

Twenty years ago, Martinez was a destination. Businesses were flocking to the area around Bobby Jones Expressway and Washington Road, and shoppers followed. The Martinez area helped usher in Columbia County's growth explosion - fueling the housing boom with retail space and restaurants.

Today, Martinez is essentially a pass-through, an area too congested with traffic and often too shoddy looking to corral people on the way to work, the mall or home.

"Unless I'm going to work, I try to avoid that whole area, if possible," Mrs. Lunde said.

Columbia County is hoping to bring Martinez back, though.

"It's my sense that the area down there along Bobby Jones Expressway, along Davis Road and the area between them is a very ripe area for development," said Jeff Browning, Columbia County's planning and development director.

Officials want to offer some type of guide for that development. They have already started talking with consultants about creating a plan to revitalize Martinez - an all-encompassing look that would include architectural renderings of buildings, traffic and pedestrian routes, landscape concepts, market studies and a list a potential tenants for the area.

Along the way, they hope, the consultants will hold something akin to town meetings, bringing business people, shoppers and property owners into the planning process. That, officials hope, will create excitement about Martinez - and maybe bring back some of the developers that have moved to the Evans area.

"My theory in planning is leap-frogging always turns out to devalue the community," said County Commissioner Steve Brown, who began pushing for the revitalization of Martinez when he served on the county's planning commission. "If you don't go back and spend a little money in revitalizing ... then you just continuously spend more money to go farther out."

He points to the advantages of Martinez, mainly that the area has the best accessibility of any Columbia County commercial zone. Without a plan, though, the area's current problems will continue.

"Everybody just piles up on top of each other," he said. "Then you have traffic problems. Everybody has a curb-cut. Everybody is running into each other. You have no real place to park your car, step out, maybe shop a little bit, maybe eat a little bit - but feel like it is fairly accessible and you can stay there for a while if you want to."

Talk of revitalization thrills business owners such as Henry and Nadine Green. In November, the Greens opened The Little's Connection - a clothing shop in La Petite Plaza just off Washington Road - and are still waiting for customers to come.

"Everywhere you have to go here, you have to drive," Mrs. Green said. "There's no public transportation. Things are so far apart."

The Greens chose their location because the rent was lower than at locations they looked at in Richmond County. They're paying the price, however, because their business is hard to see from the main thoroughfares.

"The area we are in is so difficult for people to notice," Mrs. Green said. "We don't get a lot of people over here at this time, but I know that will change."

What Mr. Brown wants to avoid is the same thing that has happened to parts of Richmond County.

"Look at Gordon Highway now. It a ghost town," he said. "That's kind of sad."

He's confident it can work: After all, Martinez is sandwiched between the commercial bonanza at Augusta Exchange and the steady growth in Evans.

"We kind of missed the boat, but guess what, we may be able to catch back up," the county commissioner said. "We may be able to draw some of those people if we have something that is a little bit better, a little bit more pedestrian-friendly, a little bit more hometown character."

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing county leaders is the land between Davis Road and Bobby Jones Expressway - a hodgepodge of decades-old homes, neighborhood workshops, a produce stand and small businesses.

The area is ripe for a mix of apartments, offices and small businesses, said Mr. Browning, the planning and development director. It also needs more crossovers between Bobby Jones Expressway and Davis Road - which is to be widened to five lanes in the next few years.

"That's just kind of a no-man's land," Mr. Browning said. "It's a hidden area that could be much more viable."

Reach Jason B. Smith at (706) 868-1222, ext. 115, or jbsmith@augustachronicle.com.