When local residents stroll along Broad Street toward the Augusta Common or down Reynolds Street across from the new Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center, they might be surprised to learn that the owner of several of those surrounding properties is 31-year-old Rafy Bassali.
About five years ago, Bassali, who also is the co-owner of the local boutique chains The Swank Company and Posh Tots with his wife, began buying vacant commercial properties in downtown Augusta at prices he considered an absolute bargain.
“One of the first buildings I bought was the Doris Building in downtown,” Bassali said, referring to the building at 930 Broad Street that was originally built back in 1931. “It had just been renovated and it was like 18,000 square feet. When I looked at it, the price was fairly cheap. So I didn’t really understand why it was so cheap to buy downtown.”
Downtown Augusta clearly has a lot of potential, so Bassali said he was baffled by all the vacant properties that were available just waiting to be purchased.
“Augusta, specifically, is such the perfect size,” Bassali said. “It’s a secondary market where there is opportunity for anybody to do anything.”
“The 800 block of Broad Street is my biggest concentration of buildings right now. The 800 block with the Augusta Common next door was actually even cheaper than most areas, so I just always thought that area was pretty desirable.” — Rafy Bassali
Bassali decided to invest in the future potential of downtown Augusta.
“Downtown has a base value, so I purchased the Doris Building and I ended up selling that one pretty quickly to the Redemption Church that is there now,” Bassali said. “Just having success with that one, I looked at other downtown properties and started buying a lot as they became available and then reaching out to people who may have been hanging onto properties for a while to see if they would sell.”
These days, Bassali owns several of the buildings along the 800 block of Broad Street next to the Augusta Common such as the former N&W Camera Exchange building, the Art of Fusion Tattoo Shop, the building that houses Psychotronic Records and the former Silla Cafe restaurant. He also owns properties on upper Broad such as the 30,000-square-foot former furniture store at 1051 Broad St.
“The 800 block of Broad Street is my biggest concentration of buildings right now,” Bassali said. “The 800 block with the Augusta Common next door was actually even cheaper than most areas, so I just always thought that area was pretty desirable.”
Eventually, Bassali said he would like to have a headquarters for his retail businesses located on the 800 block of Broad.
“We have two Posh Tots and two Swanks and then there will be a third Swank in North Augusta soon,” Bassali said, explaining that a third The Swank Company is planned at Riverside Village development next to SRP Park. “We also have Charm House Boutique on the other end of the Fury’s Ferry Plaza (in Martinez), so we were looking for kind of a headquarters to get all the shipments in and tag everything there and then deliver it to all the stores, as well as get them on the websites.”
Broad Street is the ideal location for such a headquarters because there is so much new development happening in downtown Augusta, Bassali said.
“I think Augusta is just starting,” he said. “Even buildings for sale that are breaking records, price wise, it’s still half of what it would cost to build that stuff somewhere else and without any of the historic character or anything like that. And, with the Cyber people coming, Augusta is really growing in general.”
As soon as Hannah Bassali met Rafy, she said, she knew he truly saw Augusta as a diamond in the rough.
“It is just so cool to see how driven he is,” said 29-year-old Hannah Bassali, adding that the couple got married in October 2016. “How his mind works is so different from anyone I’ve ever met. I could tell that immediately. Meeting him, he had plans and ideas for downtown Augusta way before it was the cool thing to do.”
Rafy Bassali grew up in the Augusta area and graduated from Westminster in 2005. He attended the University of South Carolina in Columbia where he received his bachelor’s degree in Investment Finance and Real Estate. He then returned to Augusta and earned his master’s degree in business in 2012 at Augusta University.
“Growing up in Augusta, I had always seen downtown. I mean, you might go downtown for bars and stuff like that. But I didn’t remember people going there during the day,” Bassali said. “Now, that has all changed. We like going to the farmers market on Saturday and there is a lot to do during the day. It’s a lot more family-friendly, and the restaurants are much busier. I think if we get some more residential properties, that would really take it over the top.”
In fact, once downtown Augusta develops more residential units, Bassali said he hopes to someday locate a new Swank Company on Broad Street.
“The building on 11th and Broad Street, which is 1051 Broad, is where we were potentially putting a Swank,” Bassali said. “But I also want to do a co-working space there.”
Bassali explained it would be similar to the other co-working spaces that have already been announced downtown, which offer people a place to work with private offices, desks and conference rooms with WiFi, without having to buy their own office building.
“It would be a similar concept, but this would kind of cater toward more of the businesses that I deal with or businesses that I want to help grow,” Bassali said.
“When I first moved here, I lived downtown and everyone was turning their noses up at that and people were saying, ‘Why would you choose to do that?’ I lived in the Olde Town area and it was awesome. I absolutely loved it.” — Hannah Bassali
In addition to properties on Broad Street, Bassali owns several buildings on Reynolds Street including the former Wells Fargo branch bank at 1102 Reynolds St., the Augusta Blueprint building at 514 Reynolds St., and a one-story brick office building at 1030 Reynolds St.
“A lot of it is based around catering to cyber since the new Cyber Innovation and Training Center will be right there,” Bassali said. “Between the development at the old Train Depot property and the construction of the Cyber Center, I am very excited about the potential of both of those developments. I am just kind of waiting for the right type of tenant to move in. Right now, we are basically just bringing those spaces to a shell.”
With Augusta University also looking to have a bigger presence in the downtown area, Bassali believes the sky is the limit for Augusta.
“I think having more students downtown would be a big boost,” he said. “It would make sense for a lot more businesses to locate downtown.”
When Hannah Bassali first moved to Augusta from north Georgia, she immediately gravitated to the downtown area.
She believes more young professionals and medical students will do the same thing if additional residential units are developed downtown.
“I have lived here about six years, and I came here after college,” Hannah Bassali said. “When I first moved here, I lived downtown and everyone was turning their noses up at that and people
were saying, ‘Why would you choose to do that?’ I lived in the Olde Town area, and it was awesome. I absolutely loved it.
“And not being from here, I didn’t know the negative stigma attached to it. I just thought it was really fun.”
But now with the new energy generated by the SRP Park and the Riverside Village development which will include retail shops, restaurants, office buildings, a 200-room hotel and approximately 280 apartment units along with 36 residential flats and 14 single-family homes along the Greeneway, Hannah Bassali said a lot of younger people moving to the area are looking for places to live in North Augusta.
“We are very excited about the stadium in North Augusta. We think it’s an awesome development with so much potential,” she said, adding that was one of the main reasons they decided to open a new Swank at Riverside Village. “You can see how people already go to eat in Hammond’s Ferry and use the Greeneway, so I feel like once there is the retail added and there is more living spaces and just more things to do in North Augusta, I think it will be a big draw.”
North Augusta has done an excellent job looking at all the different aspects needed to support a new multi-million dollar project, Rafy Bassali said.
“They are putting a lot of residential in that development which I think hugely sustainable for businesses,” he said. “I definitely think that is really lacking in downtown Augusta right now. There is just not a lot of residential units in downtown Augusta. But in North Augusta, they are going to do around 300 apartments.
“If someone was going to build 300 apartments immediately downtown, I think we would be a lot less reluctant to start retail downtown and invest more in actual businesses downtown versus the buildings.”
But Rafy Bassali says he is still optimistic that there will one day be a Swank in downtown Augusta. He just wants to make sure it would thrive and be successful in a downtown location.
“Back in 2014, someone approached my sister about buying Swank originally, but she was moving to Atlanta. However, my wife — we were actually dating at the time — she had always wanted to be in the boutique business and we kind of made the decision to buy Swank,” Rafy Bassali said, explaining that the couple rebranded the store by expanding the gift and accessory options and adding clothing to the original Surrey Center location.
Within a year, a new location of Swank opened its doors on Fury’s Ferry Road in Martinez. Then, the couple eventually opened two locations of Posh Tots, which specializes in baby and children’s furniture, clothing, luxury baby bedding and nursery decor. Finally, the couple added Charm House Boutique in the Fury’s Ferry Plaza which offers modern women’s and kid’s clothing with a little Southern charm.
“When people tell me that they love the stores, it makes me surprised and happy every single time,” Hannah Bassali said, smiling. “It is such a good thing to hear, and I hope that we keep it that way. We really try to cater toward the people who shop here and provide what they want and ask for. But it has been surprising. It has definitely grown bigger than I’ve ever thought.”
While Rafy and Hannah Bassali will always love downtown Augusta, they are blown away by the growth in Columbia County and their loyal customer base.
“People in Columbia County responded well to us because they are so underserved, especially when we first came out here,” Rafy Bassali said. “Everyone lived out in Columbia County, but there was nobody shopping out here.”
The Bassalis realized that residents in Columbia County needed options other than driving 45 minutes to the Augusta Mall or Surrey Center.
“As the community grows and the traffic gets heavier, it’s just much more convenient to be on the way home or shopping at Publix and they will come in and pick up quick gifts or clothes for themselves,” Rafy Bassali said. “And I think something that makes us different from the mall stores or larger retail stores is that we make orders every day versus buying items once or twice a year or just seasonally. So, if someone likes something and it does well, you order it one week
and you order a similar thing the next week.”
Hannah Bassali explained it is extremely important for her to communicate with the customers and get their feedback on items throughout the store.
“With us being here every day and literally talking to customers and asking their opinion on items, it’s what makes us different,” Hannah Bassali said. “We enjoy interacting with people and providing that service.”
Rafy Bassali joked that the couple is sometimes too involved in the store.
“We are here every day,” Rafy Bassali said, laughing. “And she is actually pregnant with our first baby — a little girl. She’s due in September, so we are trying to delegate some things that we do at the stores a little more because we have a great staff.”
The Bassalis have worked hard selecting a staff that really cares about each of their stores and want them to succeed, he said.
“The staff does an amazing job, especially when it comes to customer service, which is our number one priority,” Rafy Bassali said. “Between the stores we have over 70 women — all are from the Augusta area and some work on their breaks from college — and they all do an incredible job.”
With a new baby girl on the way and five businesses thriving, the Bassalis see nothing but a bright future in the Augusta area.
“Even the skyline of downtown Augusta is changing. It is really exciting,” Rafy Bassali said. “It’s definitely not there yet, but I really think it’s starting to take off. People are willing to move downtown, like TaxSlayer. I think 10 years ago, TaxSlayer would have never considered moving their main operations downtown and making Columbia County an ancillary business, so I think that is a huge testament to downtown and its potential.”
Downtown Augusta is definitely worth the investment, Rafy Bassali said.
“I think secondary markets like Augusta are where small businesses can flourish the most,” he said. “In places like Atlanta, there is just so much competition in every aspect, whether it’s real estate, retail or restaurants. Basically, everything. You have to be the best of the best to survive.”
This market offers small businesses a little bit of wiggle room, Rafy Bassali said.
“Augusta gives you the opportunity to make a mistake here and there,” he said, laughing. “Here you can grow and learn how to get where you should be. In Augusta, you don’t have to be the first or the best every time. Here, you can grow with the city.”