Bob Peck, vice president of development for Watkins Retail Group, which builds shopping centers and leases their anchor supermarket spaces to Publix, now cites May 1, 2021, as Watkins’ probable date to break ground on the Eagles Corner shopping center.
This date, sounding more confident than his April 2020-stated goal to break ground by the end of last year, comes after a recent reorientation of the supermarket’s footprint on the site. That adjustment followed a failed attempt by the developers and the city government to win state approval for a direct traffic access point onto Veterans Memorial Parkway, also known as Statesboro’s U.S. Highway 301 bypass. One or more leases then had to be revised before Watkins closes on deals with Publix and other tenant businesses.
“We’re going through the process of amending the lease so we can close the middle to later part of next month, and then we’ll be in for permitting, looking to break ground probably May 1,” Peck said in a phone interview Thursday.
The permitting that remains to be done will be with the city of Statesboro. As of last week, Watkins Retail Group had not submitted a building plan, but Peck said the process is expected to take about 60 days, or 90 at most.
Restaurants and shops
In addition to the 48,000-square-foot Publix store, the planned retail center will include 16,000 to 17,000 square feet of built spaces for other tenants, typically restaurants or retailers, plus three outparcels to develop for other businesses. Watkins Retail Group is working with about four prospective “restaurant concepts,” a hair salon, a nail salon and “a medical usage,” for spots in the center, and has three or four other individuals looking at outparcels, Peck said.
The design of the supermarket itself awaits final work by Publix’s own architects. But Peck said the plan includes a mezzanine, with seating for deli diners, opening to a patio overlooking the parking area.
No doubt many readers recall a previous groundbreaking, where the proposed Publix location on Old Register Road near Veterans Memorial Parkway was announced – but not directly by Watkins or Publix – back in March 2019. That was actually the groundbreaking for the Tormenta soccer stadium and the overall Old Register Road Tax Allocation District, or TAD. The stadium hasn’t been built yet, either.
But what has now been completed is public infrastructure work costing $5.25 million mainly in the addition of multiple lanes along a section of Old Register Road and onto the bypass, plus the construction of new Tormenta Way, extending eastward parallel to the bypass, and placement of traffic lights at both intersections. Utility lines, pipelines and drainage structures were also installed.
That $5.25 million includes the $4.75 million the city advanced to the TAD’s principal investors, JGR Development LLC, for road and other infrastructure work. After the businesses are built, the increased revenue from rising property tax values in the TAD is supposed to pay off the loan, which the city obtained from a bank but which was structured like a bond issuance.
The city spent an additional $500,000 on traffic lights for the project from its own Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenue.
Request to GDOT
Watkins Retail Group is “moving on” now “full steam ahead” with building the shopping center after the Georgia Department of Transportation denied a request last year for a “right-in, right-out” access point on the bypass, Peck said.
In fact, the city of Statesboro made this request, on the developers’ behalf, to the GDOT in August. After a state traffic engineer denied the request in October, Watkins modified it to ask for a “right-in-only” access.
Meanwhile, the city sent GDOT District 5 Engineer Rob McCall an appeal letter, dated Oct. 29 and signed by Mayor Jonathan McCollar. He cited the potential importance of the shopping center, Tormenta Stadium and the entire Tax Allocation District to the local economy and the city’s tax base.
The proposed development would add $169 million to the taxable value of property in the TAD, generating additional annual revenue of $1.8 million for the city, the letter asserted.
In addition to the stadium complex and shopping center, those projections factor in motels, a theater, restaurants, shops, offices and loft apartments that JGR Development proposed could be built over time in the nearly 250-acre TAD.
No bypass break
In a Nov. 20 letter rejecting the appeal, GDOT Chief Engineer Meg B. Pirkle noted that federal and state regulations generally require at least one mile between “any new local road intersections along the access-controlled roadway.” The proposed access point was 1,165 feet from Old Register Road, the previous denial letter noted. A mile is 5,280 feet.
She also noted that the GDOT had already made a funding commitment for the first phase of the Akins Boulevard Extension.
“We look forward to the completion of (Akins) Blvd. extension and Tormenta Way as we feel that it will provide a great transportation network to serve the planned development for this area,” Pirkle wrote.
Future shoppers will also be able to enter and leave the shopping center at an opening on Old Register Road between Tormenta Way and the bypass, Peck said.
When the first phase of the Akins Extension is completed, it will link the Akins intersection on the bypass to the other end of Tormenta Way.
This year’s GDOT grant, awarded through the city for this first phase of the Akins Extension project, supplies 70% of the $1.4 million contract awarded to Mill Creek Construction. Georgia Southern University is paying the other 30%.
The work, now underway, is expected to be completed this summer, said Assistant City Manager Jason Boyles.
The second phase will extend the boulevard further, from the end of Tormenta Way to an existing drive already built from Lanier Drive to the university’s “South Campus” area. That phase, projected to cost $5.9 million “is scheduled to begin in Spring 2022, and is anticipated to be completed in early 2023,” Boyles replied in an email.
It is also expected to be funded 70% by the GDOT and 30% by the university, which has deeded the first-phase property to the city and is expected to do the same with the second-phase property. Both phases add up to about three-fourths of a mile.
Getting the roads and infrastructure done was a key to moving the overall development forward, said Darin Van Tassell, South Georgia Tormenta FC soccer franchise president and JGR leading investor.
“It won’t just be a Publix that you’ll see coming out of the ground, but also the stadium and all of those things next to Publix, and then the other pieces that we’re developing,” Van Tassell said Friday. “2021 is going to see a lot of activity, and that May time frame is when you’re going to see most of it beginning.”