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Watkins pays city $104,000 for permits, begins Publix shopping center build
Tractors replace ceremonial shovels as developer keeps sights set on October 2022 store opening
Foundational work has begun at the Publix work site on Veterans Parkway.
Foundational work has begun at the Publix work site on Veterans Parkway. - photo by By SCOTT BRYANT/staff

Thirty-three months after a future Publix supermarket was first announced at a groundbreaking for the Tax Allocation District on Old Register Road, Publix’s landlord the Watkins Real Estate Group has paid the city of Statesboro more than $104,000 for permits, and store-specific sitework has begun.

The Old Register TAD ceremony, which had more to do with the planned Tormenta FC soccer stadium and an overall vision for the district, occurred in March 2019. In May 2021, executives of Watkins Retail Group and Publix Super Markets Inc. took part in a ceremonial groundbreaking for the Eagles Corner shopping center itself, to include the flagship 48,000-square-foot supermarket.

But Statesboro Mayor Jonathan McCollar saw the fact that actual building permits were issued and heavy machinery began moving dirt last week as significant enough to dedicate a slide and a couple of minutes to it during his town hall forum late Saturday morning.

“Publix,” he said, as a rendering of the grocery store marquee appeared on the screen at City Hall. “I’ve been waiting a long time to say this, but we were informed that $104,000 in permitting costs was paid and permits were picked up. So, rumor has it that there are some tractors moving around on the property where Publix is going to be. So we’re super, super excited about this.”

In fact, the real estate development company, Watkins, paid the city a few cents less than $104,759 on Dec. 13 for building permits, water and sewer taps, electrical permitting, inspection and other fees for four buildings, according to invoices.

The largest by far will be Eagles Corner Building 1, the Publix store itself, at 101 Tormenta Way. Buildings 2, 3 and 4 are described in city documents as retail “shell” buildings in the Eagles Corner shopping center.

With all four of these structures, including Building 2, which was planned to be divided into several smaller shops next to Publix, the shopping center will total almost 66,000 square feet of interior space. Watkins has also been marketing three outparcels measuring a little over one acre each.

“This is a good telltale sign for the future of our community. …,” McCollar said.  “And one thing that we’ve definitely got to note is that Publix is not coming by itself. It’s bringing other businesses with it.”


Ground REALLY broken

As of Monday, the “tractors” seen at the site along Old Register Road between Veterans Memorial Parkway and Tormenta Way included big, yellow excavators doing some serious digging where ceremonial shovels previously scratched the surface. A sign at the site that earlier announced Publix as “Coming Soon” has been updated to assert “Opening Fall 2022.”

Interviewed at the May ceremony, Bob Peck, Watkins Retail Group’s vice president of development, gave October 2022 as the expected opening month and said it was “written in the lease.” The Retail Group, or commercial side of Watkins Real Estate Group, develops shopping centers with Publix, based in Lakeland, Florida, as the anchor tenant, then markets the other spaces to other retail and service businesses.


‘Right now … October’

Phoned Monday, Peck said the project is “flowing and going” and still aimed at an October opening.

“The only thing that would disrupt that would be supply-chain issues, which are out there, but we’ll see,” he said. “As of right now, everything’s good for October.”

Peck also said that all of the spaces in the shopping center have been accounted for with letters of intent from prospective tenants or leases going out for execution, and all three outparcels are under contract.

“If all the deals come through, we’ll open 100 percent leased, with all of the outparcels accounted for,” Peck said.

The development is on track to include four or five restaurants, he said, but he wouldn’t reveal the businesses’ names yet.

Other slides McCollar showed during his Saturday town hall forum spotlighted city initiatives. These included the neighborhood revitalization effort recently allocated $5 million from Statesboro’s $12.3 million federal American Rescue Plan Act funding, the Blue Mile streetscape for which construction is now underway, the Downtown Master Plan still taking shape and the planned transit system awaiting a long-delayed delivery of buses.


City payback begins

Among these, the Publix shopping center stood out as a private investor-led development, although one that has benefitted from public support in the form of advance funding for connector roads and other infrastructure.

Local investors organized as JGR Development LLC, led by Darin Van Tassell, president of the South Georgia Tormenta FC soccer franchise, convinced Statesboro’s mayor and council to create the Old Register TAD, encompassing about 225 acres, in 2018. Like other tax allocation districts, it is meant to use public infrastructure improvements to drive private investment in the area and in turn repay the public cost by capturing the growth generated in property tax revenue within the district over a period of years.

The city borrowed $4.75 million in the form of a single-bank bond and used it to reimburse the TAD investors for improvements that included the construction of Tormenta Way and the widening of Old Register Road to multiple lanes through the TAD area. These became city streets.

With little growth having occurred from the TAD’s creation until now, the $104,759 in fees for the supermarket permits marks one of the first significant returns in city revenue.

The city required the JGR investors to begin making payments this year on the financing in lieu of revenue from the TAD property tax growth increment.

The first such payment, received in March, was for $25,575, limited because some money had been left from the bond issuance. A second payment of $52,012 was due in August but the city has not received it yet, said city Finance Director Cindy West.

Van Tassell, who has said that the timeline for the Tormenta Stadium construction should roughly parallel that of Publix, was not called for an update for this story.

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