Sat, June 22, 2024

Putting empty Augusta buildings back to work

Augusta-Richmond County will soon see a series of vacant buildings finding new life for different purposes.

The most recent is the former Rite Aid/Eckerd Drugs store on Walton Way at 15th Street. It re-opened on Feb. 8 as a retail store and training center for Goodwill Industries of Middle Georgia and the CSRA. That came on the heels of Goodwill turning the former Georgia Federal Bank on Washington Road at Furys Ferry Road into its welcome center for Helms College.

Both locations had been commercial tracts, generating property taxes for the city. City online tax records show as a drug store, owners paid as much as $23,000, while the former bank paid as much as $5,800.

Mayor Garnett Johnson told ABD there are bigger factors to take into consideration when dealing with vacant property.

“It is always an advantage when a building is used for its purpose, and this purpose is to help the less fortunate in our community. One that offers a second chance of hope, not only for employment, but for access to clothing at a discounted rate, access to resources to help them get back on their feet,” he said. “So, we see this as an added benefit to the community. Whether it’s on the tax rolls or not, it actually adds back to our economy by helping those that desperately need it. Plus, it’s putting people to work.”

The property is in Richmond County Commission District 1, represented by Commissioner Jordan Johnson. He has been concerned with the fate of empty properties in the city and the number of blighted properties, both residential and commercial.

“Having these businesses open in the area is good news for the district. Simply because, prior to the opening, these buildings have been left to just sit. And we all know what happens when buildings sit unoccupied,” Johnson told ABD. “I take my hat off to all the owners and organizations in the area to restore the fabric, restore the culture, and giving back to the community.”

Two other buildings in Richmond County are being taken over by Augusta Technical College, which, as a school, is exempt from property taxes.

One building, the former offices of the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce, was a public building, which was also exempt from property taxes. In December 2023, Augusta Tech announced it is converting the building into a microenterprise center for new and existing businesses to use as an incubator.

While not subject to property taxes, Margaret Woodard, Executive Director of the Downtown Development Authority, told ABD at the December announcement that it will impact workforce and economic development, particularly on lower Broad Street.

“This will be one of those things that will help revitalize this area. You’re going to have students and entrepreneurs and 24/7 activity around here,” she said. “It’s called the halo effect. And that’s what we look at once there’s a project and we watch the halo effect and see what buildings go under contract. Property values go up, so we’ll be watching that for a couple of years.”

A month earlier, Augusta Tech unveiled plans to turn the former Johnson Motor Company on Walton Way into a campus to house its existing automotive training programs and develop new programs. As a commercial business, it had paid as much as $31,000 in property taxes, according to the city’s online database.

In making the announcement, Dr. Jermaine Whirl, President of Augusta Tech, said the property will be a major contributor in other ways,

“These are very intentional moves to try to ensure that we’re not only doing a workforce piece, but how can we also help the community at the same time, because this property could have just been dilapidated, that could have just been an area that has been a blind spot. But now with us being here, it’s going to rejuvenate the entire footprint. And that’s what we want to say outside of just the academics,” said Whirl.

A sentiment echoed by Commissioner Johnson.

“The Johnson building will be a place where students will be able to practice their automotive skills so they can go off and get jobs in that industry, which is a viable industry nationwide,” he said “All of these projects add value to the neighborhoods where they are situated. I’m looking forward to the future of the areas because this is what we need. This is what we’ve been asking for some of our major corridors.”

A fifth building currently undergoing rehabilitation and renovations is, and will continue to be, a business that pays city property taxes.

The Sunshine Bakery and Deli on the 1200 block of Broad Street had been famous for its soups, breads, and pastries. It closed in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was vacant until last year when the Fatman’s Hospitality Group, owners of Fatman’s Mill Café in Augusta and Sno-Cap Drive-In in North Augusta, bought it.

Havird Usry, Vice President of Operations and Development, told ABD that reviving nostalgic buildings is in their wheelhouse.

“It’s very satisfying to see a building in a dilapidated condition, just like 1006 Broad and 1008 Broad (two previous projects), just like several others, but particularly for restaurants, and just watch it morph into something that can be beautiful and utilize these historic tax credits, he said. “When you can utilize these tax credits, it makes it much more of a financially feasible project, not only for real estate development, but also to be able to open a single tenant restaurant space like this.

Online records show Sunshine Bakery paid as much as $2,100 in property taxes, in addition to collecting sales taxes and creating jobs. It will re-open as Bradley’s BBQ. Usry hopes to schedule the opening date by late summer or early fall.

Augusta Tech’s microenterprise center is expected to open this fall. It will take about a year to transform the old Johnson Motors into the college’s automotive training campus with accepting students in 2025.

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