With so much attention recently given to the state of the downtown properties and with many questioning the effectiveness of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) to expand the economic opportunities of the area, the presentation of the retail study commissioned by the DDA last week raised some interest, especially among those already skeptical about yet another downtown study.
In 2005, the DDA authorized a $52,000 study on downtown parking that continues to be part of the parking discussion, though little has changed other than the addition of the Reynolds Street parking deck, which was constructed to satisfy a different set of problems.
Chuck Branch, a partner with Retail Strategies, the consulting group that performed the retail study, addressed the DDA board at its monthly meeting and presented the group with a lot of information and some interesting suggestions.
Perhaps most surprising was his take on the way residential property might be used to jumpstart retail interest in the downtown.
“I think it’s great that you’ve got people willing to come in and redo a new building and add five or six or 10 new units, but I think [it’s important] to identify developers that want to come in and do 70 to 100 units per development,” he said. “Or at some point find a developer that wants to come in and do 200-250 for-rent residential units.”
Currently, the downtown area boasts a residential occupancy rate in the mid-to upper-90s, and though the idea of increasing population density through residential development has always been part of the overall strategy to revitalize the downtown area, it’s seldom been framed in such aggressive terms.
As of now, 2,400 businesses are located downtown employing over 32,000 people. The majority work for the downtown hospitals, with 2,600 employed by the Augusta-Richmond County government.
Branch said that one of the advantages downtowns have in attracting retail right now is the fact that so many big-box stores are suffering.
“You’re starting to see a lot of big-box stores that are going out of business,” Branch said. “The problem is they’ve lost their service capability. You walk in, there are three employees and you can’t get anyone to help you.”
As a result, he said, there’s a strong turn back toward the entrepreneurial “mom and pop kind of retail” that’s well-tailored for a downtown area.
He listed several cities that he felt could serve as benchmarks for downtown Augusta, including Greenville and Asheville.
Greenville in particular has developed a 25-year plan to rejuvenate its downtown, and he suggested board members take a good look at Montgomery, Ala., as well.
“Montgomery probably six or seven years ago is where you are today,” he said. “That is, they were just beginning the process of getting people to come in and convert buildings and recruit new restaurant concepts.”
He also pointed favorably to Milledgeville, which has attracted boutique retailers to its downtown.
Grabbing the headlines given its controversial nature among downtown property owners was his recommendation that the Business Improvement District (BID) be reinstituted.
“There has to be a serious discussion amongst whatever government entity it is, but you’ve got to have your Business Improvement District come back,” he said.
Commissioners voted not to renew the BID in late 2013.
Branch also hit on another hot button issue for the DDA: parking.
The downtown needs a parking management plan if it wants to attract retailers, he said, because parking is one of the first things they look at when determining where to go, and though Augusta has a lot to offer retailers, there are a plenty of other cities in the mix.
“The interest is out there,” he said, noting that two quick-service restaurants have chosen to locate near the medical district.