The Regency Mall problem is not the roadblock to growth in the District 5 area.
The mall has sat idle for years, a scourge on the landscape at the intersection of Deans Bridge Road and Gordon Highway and is often the scapegoat used to account for a lack of growth in the area.
The real problem, however, lies with bad schools, crime and a lack of good-paying jobs.
The mall was in the news this week as county commissioners discussed whether to use the new blight ordinance to force the mall’s owners to address the problem. Many comments focused on how the mall has caused that part of town to remain depressed.
These types of statements are either ignorant or political and fail to address the true underlying problems the area is facing. One property cannot prevent growth in an entire district, nor can it solve an area’s problems.
Even the ludicrous suggestion to move the arena to the site and enter a long-term ground lease would not have fixed the area’s problems. Had that proposal gone through, it would have been the worst “deal” I had seen in 16 years of working in commercial real estate. Generations of Augustans would have suffered financially for the poorly thought-out transaction.
I only mention the transaction because it likely did more damage than good as the current owners now think they have a property that the county needs. Sooner or later, some politician is going to come to them with an insane offer they can’t refuse. Augusta has shot itself in the foot as far as negotiating a reasonable price to purchase the property.
The out-of-state owners are often the subject of unwarranted attack. I have often wondered, if the property was owned locally and if that person made the right political contributions, whether the mall would ever be brought up for discussion. The mall’s owners have rights. They purchased a property as an investment and have the right to own it, sell it, lease it, demolish it, build on it or do whatever the law allows them to do with it.
Property location or political pressure should not infringe on property owners’ rights. The owners of the mall are completely unreasonable on pricing and terms for the property. But they have the right to be. A local developer would likely be just as unreasonable, banking on the city coming up with some crazy price or terms to purchase the property.
Multiple attempts to infringe on their rights have failed. Once, the city attempted to raise the property’s assessed value and were met with a lawsuit. Multiple proposals have been discussed about taking the property through eminent domain, which shows our county leaders don’t understand what eminent domain is or its purpose.
The city imposed an aggressive storm water fee county-wide that hurt the Regency Mall owners financially, along with many other commercial property owners. The owners’ solution was removing the parking lot. They made a wise decision to reduce their monthly burden to the county. The parking lot would have had to have been replaced for any new development either way.
I predict that the owners will tear down the rest of the building at some point, reducing the storm water burden even more as well as the property’s taxable value. From what I have seen, the building is not useable anyway. It would be cheaper to demolish the building and build new than to repair the existing structure. The owners just have to decide if the cost of demolition outweighs carrying costs such as storm water, property taxes and any debt service they may have.
The solution is not having the county buy the property or forcing the owners to develop it. The solution lies with jobs, crime and schools.
Richmond County first needs to increase its employment base. As the job base grows, the need for housing will increase. Housing growth is what leads to retail growth. All communities grow in this pattern.
The bigger challenge community leaders need to figure out is how to get people to live in District 5, a place where property values are constantly dropping and crime is on the rise. People like to live in areas where growth is occurring and property values are increasing.
A March 2016 report from the National Association of Realtors (NAR) revealed that the top issue that drives down property values is “bad schools.” Below is a list of the features that hurt property values in order of significance, according to that report. Please note the percentage shown is how much on average property values drop when these types of features are in close proximity to the neighborhood.
- Bad schools 22.2%
- Strip clubs 14.7%
- High renter concentration 13.8%
- Homeless shelter 12.7%
- Cemetery 12.3%
- Funeral home 6.5%
- Power plant 5.3%
- Shooting range 3.7%
- Hospital 3.2%
While the area around Regency Mall does not contain a strip club or homeless shelter, neighboring District 1 has experienced many challenges due to the presence of these types of facilities.
The NAR report used an example of a St. Louis neighborhood that had 10 strip clubs in the same zip code. Within the previous three-year period leading up to the study, only a hand full of houses sold, with an average sale price of just $10,000.
District 5 may not have a strip club but directly across the street is Hillcrest Memorial Park and within a one-mile radius of the mall, roughly 60% of all housing units are rentals.
In the same one-mile radius, 25% of the households earn less than $15,000 per year and only 14% of all households earn over $50,000 per year.
The NAR report focuses in on bad schools as the number one reason that property values in an area decline. According to www.greatschools.org, which the NAR report references, the closest schools to the Regency Mall have extremely poor ratings.
- Terrace Manor Elementary – 1 of 10
- Butler High School – 2 of 10
- Wilkinson Gardens Elementary – 3 of 10
- Southside Elementary – 3 of 10
- Dorothy Haines Elementary – 4 of 10
- Richmond County Technical Magnet School – 7 of 10
Only Richmond County Technical Magnet School earned over four points in the rating system for schools in the 30906 district east of I-520. The schools west of I-520 in same zip code had zero schools earn over three points. The 30901 zip code had very similar scores, with the exception of Davidson Fine Arts Magnet High School and A.R. Johnson Magnet School, which both scored high marks.
The notion that the Regency Mall is holding back the area around it is not based on facts. For decades, politicians have used the mall as a platform to help garner voter support, yet to date, no elected official has done anything to solve the problem. The reality is that government cannot solve the problem.
New job growth, reducing crime and improving the schools in the area will be the catalyst to fix the economic decline of District 5. Focus should be placed on those items — which government can actually affect — rather than trying to maneuver around one property owner’s rights.
If the area improves, perhaps the mall owners will be able to sell the property for a use that will benefit the area. The mall’s redevelopment is not the egg that comes before the chicken for this area.