Twenty-plus years ago, much of Augusta's commerce activity came from the southern portion known as south Augusta. Augusta's first mall, Regency Mall, was strategically built in 1978 on one of the highest traffic corridors in the area.
The facility attracted retail, commercial, residential and restaurants to this area of the city and had much promise. And then, something tragic occurred in 1986 and in 1989.
In 1986, a 16-year-old girl was abducted from a parking lot at Regency Mall. She was raped and shot four times, and her body was found several days later near Hephzibah. Three years later, an 18-year-old woman was shot by a man who was hiding in the back seat of her car, leaving her paralyzed. Her family filed suit against the owner, Edward J. DeBartolo, claiming that security at Regency Mall was inadequate.
Shortly thereafter, the Augusta Mall, which opened one week after Regency Mall, underwent a major $32 million renovation and expansion. Regency Mall was never updated during its life span.
This picture was bleak, to say the least. One by one, the major tenants of the mall closed their doors. Montgomery Ward was the last anchor to close, in 2001. In 2002, Regency Mall officially closed. It didn't take long for the banks, grocery stores and practically every viable enterprise to leave south Augusta from 1986 to 2002.
The handwriting was on the wall that something had to be done before south Augusta became a ghost town. A few business people, led by Augusta-Richmond County Pride 'n Progress founder and businessman Jimmy Smith, obtained funding from the city to retain a consultant to create a redevelopment strategy for Regency Mall and the surrounding area.
Augusta Tomorrow Inc. was an integral part of this effort. You can take a look at this strategy by visiting www.augustatomorrow.com.
Let's fast-forward to 2004. I wrote an article for another publication and used the term "stealth missile" to describe south Augusta. Webster's dictionary defines stealth as "secret, surreptitious or clandestine activity." In times of war, one can gain position by surprising the opposition with a "stealth missile." I went on to say that south Augusta is going to sneak up on many people and the statement will be made, "Wow, look what is happening in south Augusta." I was not implying that economic development activities in south Augusta were/are being done in secret, nor was I implying that we were trying to gain position. What I was simply saying is that since the mid-1980s, south Augusta had not been a high economic development priority for many of our city leaders - for a variety of reasons.
There were a few people, however, who refused to give up. If you really think about when something has reached the bottom, there is no other way to go but up, and that was the sentiment of Mr. Smith, now an Augusta Commission member.
I met him six years ago when I became active in economic development in this portion of the city. He and I shared the same goal - we must re-create an environment conducive for new and expanded growth and development. It didn't matter that people oftentimes looked at us as if we had horns on our heads when we spoke of what can and will be for south Augusta.
We choose to be ambassadors for the portion of the city that had been neglected far too long.
Two groups that have been instrumental in creating that new environment: Augusta-Richmond County Pride 'n Progress and South Augusta Business @ Breakfast.
Pride 'n Progress, now in its 16th year, is led by Larry Sides and meets the last Tuesday of each month, with community, political and business leaders attending. South Augusta Business @ Breakfast, in its fifth year, attracts a diverse group of more than 70 business executives and community and political leaders each third Wednesday morning. Information on these meetings and other south Augusta economic development activities can be found on www.southaugustabusiness.com.
Let's take a look at some of south Augusta's economic development activities that include new and expanded businesses, entrepreneurship, public/private partnerships, quality of life, new attitudes and an incredible opportunity for much more to come:
- Applebee's restaurant (currently one of the highest-producing restaurants owned by Restaurant Concepts Inc.).
- Two of the largest residential/commercial development firms - Meybohm, and Blanchard and Calhoun - have set up shop on Tobacco Road.
- Doctors Hospital and Walton Rehabilitation Center have joined University Hospital in south Augusta.
- Augusta-Richmond County Health Department on Windsor Spring Road.
- Holiday Inn on Gordon Highway recently underwent major renovation and expansion.
- A new hotel on Gordon Highway will open later this year.
- Stokes/Hodges Auto Mall is expanding. ... again on Gordon Highway.
- Major housing revitalization effort is under way in the Alleluia community.
- New interest and potential future development of Regency Mall and the surrounding area.
- Augusta South Y on Windsor Spring Road obtained more than 1,000 new members in fewer than six months.
- Faade grants for small businesses in south Augusta (three Deans Bridge Road businesses have received city grants enabling them to expand).
- Entrepreneurs are starting new and expanding existing businesses every day that are sprouting up on Gordon Highway, Deans Bridge, Tobacco, Peach Orchard and Lumpkin roads.
- Lending institutions are returning.
- The second annual Rocky Creek Springfest, a South Augusta Business @ Breakfast initiative, headed up by Pat Schaffer, the owner of Villa Europa restaurant. This event is scheduled for Saturday, April 28, at Augusta Technical College. For more information, visit www.rockycreekspringfest.com.
- Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department Regional Training Facility to be housed in the former Bourne Toyota building.
- New elementary school on Windsor Spring Road to accommodate the rapid growth.
- New homes, priced at $100,000 on up, on Willis Foreman, Old Waynesboro, Brown and McDade roads, are practically being sold before the concrete is poured.
Another positive aspect attracting new economic growth in south Augusta is the Fall Line Freeway, scheduled for completion by 2010. Travelers coming from Macon and Columbus, Ga., will come straight into a major corridor of south Augusta - Deans Bridge Road.
City leaders, economic development practitioners, real estate developers and agents, and bankers are starting to return to one of the most culturally diverse areas of the city. It's exciting to be making a comeback, and that's exactly what is happening on this side of the city.
Sure, there is much more work to be done. Sure, Regency Mall is still sitting empty, but stay tuned for future development there. Yes, we still don't have enough shoe stores, grocery stores, upscale restaurants, movie theaters, office supply stores and the like. But they're coming. A real estate developer once told me that "commercial activity increases when there is evidence of new residents moving in a certain area."
You see, it's only a matter of time.
South Augusta is no longer a stealth missile because it's on the radar of progressive, business-minded and positive people who understand the biblical saying that "this, too, shall pass."
New relationships are being formed and old relationships are being rekindled. I urge those of you who haven't ventured on this side of town in quite some time to please give us another look. As Jimmy Smith would say, "Welcome to the Promised Land."
Helen Blocker-Adams is the President and CEO of the HBA Group International, an economic/business development and event-planning firm in Augusta, and the host of the People and Issues with Helen talk show broadcast weekdays from 1-3 p.m. on radio station WNRR-AM (1230).
Business leaders and economic officials interested in participating in the In Your Words feature can contact Business Editor Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486.