LANGLEY - Little by little, the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway between Augusta and Aiken is showing steady signs of new commercial growth.
There's the recent expansion of the Langley Village shopping center adjacent to Langley Pond, where the success of several year-old retail shops prompted an additional 4,800 square feet of construction.
Nearby, there's a new convenience store and adjoining sandwich shop. Further west, there's a new corner home nearing completion for a pharmacy franchise, presenting a fresh economic facade in front of the now-idle Clearwater Finishing Plant.
"These retailers have realized there's a lot of people that live in the Valley area," said Ted Barber, the broker in charge at Palmetto Properties and Realty Co., which is developing Langley Village. "With all the new residential development going up, and people commuting from Augusta, you're just getting more traffic up and down that road."
Indeed, traffic counts from the South Carolina Department of Transportation show that in 2003, a daily average of 23,100 cars traveled the northbound and southbound lanes of Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway between Sudlow Lake Road and South Carolina Highway 421.
Add that bustling commuter traffic to a boom in Aiken County housing starts, and the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway becomes a natural place to focus commercial developments, realtors say.
"This is just that in-between area that for a long time nobody thought much of," Mr. Barber said. "A lot of people may think the Valley is in decline, but it's really not. It's growing."
In the past year, plans have been approved for the 114-lot Horse Creek subdivision near the Midland Valley Country Club west of Graniteville. Just north of the new commercial venues on the highway, the Sudlow Lake Road neighborhood continues to grow with both starter homes and higher-income houses.
"Residential (building permits) are just going through the roof," said Earnie Knight, Aiken County's chief building official. "It's just out of sight."
In 1995, the county issued 844 building permits, including 212 for new homes. This year the county expects to issue 1,504 building permits, with a projected 508 for new residential construction.
Reka Mosteller, the University of South Carolina Aiken's area manager for the Frank L. Roddey Small Business Development Center, says retail storefronts that set up along the Augusta-Aiken corridor should compliment one another, such as a restaurant next to a video store, or a department store near a supermarket.
Preparation and careful study of the area's population, businesses and commuter traffic is essential for start-up businesses, she said.
"Whatever shop opens up there needs to look at the surrounding demographics and buying patterns," Ms. Mosteller said. "You're trying to take away the market share from where they used to shop."
"Let's not forget, people's shopping patterns change," she said. "Business is about reacting to change. In a business, you cannot count on things remaining static."
And Midland Valley is changing, both in population and demographics. From mill houses in the 1950s to starter homes and upscale country club developments today, the Augusta-to-Aiken corridor has become ripe for retail development, Realtors say.
With relatively cheap land prices of $40,000 to $70,000 an acre - compared with $500,000 an acre for a prime piece of real estate along Whiskey Road or Washington Road - and not as much development red tape to navigate, there's built-in appeal.
So far, Mr. Knight says, no established trends have emerged in the county's commercial developments, either on Jefferson Davis Highway or elsewhere.
But Mr. Barber predicts a "domino effect," as more retailers see locations becoming successful.
"I think you'll see more of that development as time goes on," he said.
Reach Stephen Gurr at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or email@example.com.
A GROWING MARKET
A significant increase in housing starts over the past decade in Aiken County is opening up new commercial opportunities, as reflected in building permits issued by Aiken County:
Source: Aiken County Planning Department