In 2009, Macon developer Jim Daws had an idea how to enhance the residential portion of the College Hill Corridor master plan.
Daws presented his idea for student housing to Bill Underwood, the president of Mercer University. The plan called for retail and commercial spaces on the ground floor of apartment buildings, with quarters for students on the upper floors.
Underwood turned him down -- three times.
“I didn’t know Jim and I told him I wasn’t interested,” Underwood recalled.
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Daws didn’t give up, though.
“He was so persistent,” Underwood said.
David Thompson, co-founder of Macon-based Piedmont Construction Group, had pitched the College Hill plan to Daws. He knew Daws was a longtime developer of multi-family projects.
“I would have given up long before Jim did,” Thompson said. “Jim kept refining, refining and trying to get it. ... He kept working the deal.”
Underwood finally became interested and looked into Daws’ background.
“People told me he was somebody with professional integrity and would be good to work with,” Underwood said. “That convinced me to move forward. And here we are.”
During the past five years, Daws, president of Sierra Development Group, has been the catalyst for seven new projects, five of them between Mercer and downtown Macon -- the College Hill Corridor -- as well as five under construction or planned across the county.
Daws began working with equity partner Benjy Griffith III, president of Southern Pine Plantations, in 2009 and the Lofts at Mercer -- phases I and II -- were built in what became Mercer Village, near the college campus. Griffith is a Mercer trustee and alumnus.
“That obviously started the ball rolling,” said Daws, 61. “And it turned out beyond everybody’s expectations.”
The Lofts at Mercer projects were quickly followed by the Lofts at Tattnall, Lofts at College Hill and Lofts at Mercer Landing, now under construction. Also, the commercial portion of Mercer Landing, which includes a hotel and restaurants, is under construction.
“It’s been just a fantastic partnership,” Underwood said. “I can’t imagine better people to work with.”
Soon after the Lofts at Mercer were developed, Daws joined forces with Travis Griffith, 33, president of Southern Pine Plantation Commercial Group.
“Basically, any project I’ve done in Macon since 2010, Travis has been an integral part,” Daws said.
Other multifamily projects they have completed in the past five years are Lofts at 401 Cherry downtown; Lofts at Bass, phase I in north Bibb County; and Thomaston Crossing apartments in west Bibb.
Other developments planned are Lofts at Navicent and Lofts at Bass, phase II. The most recent proposed project, Lofts at Zebulon, is subject to zoning approval.
Next month, construction of Lofts at Navicent is expected to begin. It will provide offices and housing for Navicent Health employees as well as offer some retail spaces.
Ninfa Saunders, president and CEO of Navicent Health, said the hospital was interested in working with a local developer.
“Mr. Daws understands downtown living and design as well as the market, as demonstrated by his previous success in the area,” Saunders said in an email. “His vision for this project aligned with ours, and we are excited to work together to contribute to the economic vitality of the downtown area.”
The value of the projects that have been completed or are under construction is about $145 million. About $100 million of that is Mercer related, and it does not include the $10 million value of the Marriott Townplace Suites being built at Mercer Landing, Daws said.
Adding in the other proposed projects, the total comes to about $330 million.
“We are trying to brand all of it as Live at Lofts,” Daws said. The hope is when students graduate, they will stay in Macon and transition into one of the other loft developments, he said.
This is not Daws’ first rodeo.
In 1989, he built the Allstate building on Riverside Drive at Bass Road. His office was in that building until about three years ago, when he moved to 401 Cherry St.
Then in the early 1990s, Daws developed some apartments in the area, including Rivoli Run and Estates at Barrington Hall in Macon and Huntington Chase and Galleria Park in Warner Robins.
After those projects, he realized he could develop apartments in larger cities where costs would be about the same but the rents would be higher. So from 1993 to 2008, he didn’t do any projects in the midstate.
Before doing the most recent local deals, he had developed about 5,000 residential units in Atlanta; Jacksonville, Florida; and Nashville, Tennessee.
But the situation is a little different with his current Macon projects.
“This is the most I’ve had going at one time,” he said.
Also in the early 1990s, Southern Pines, also known as SPP, began developing the large commercial shopping centers on each side of Zebulon Road at Interstate 475.
When the economy tanked in the mid- to late 2000s, “you couldn’t get a loan, no matter how good your site was,” Daws said.
And that’s when the stars aligned with the Mercer deals and the partnership with Griffith and SPP.
“Everybody’s philosophy changed after the downturn. It’s about maximizing resources to the best of everybody’s ability, which has created a lot of strong partnerships,” Griffith said. “Those things are coming together. It’s not a one man show. It’s all those people coming together and saying you’re good at this and you’re good at this. Let’s work together and be better than a single kind of company out there.”
“Everybody is looking for opportunities,” he said. Piedmont has been the general contractor for all the loft developments.
“Travis helps work the financial side, Jim does the development and we do the construction,” he said.
Daws knows how to work with architects to enhance a project without adding a lot of dollars, Thompson said.
“He will do a lot of tweaks to the exteriors. He likes really nice landscaping and he likes architectural details that distinguish these (projects),” Thompson said. “That’s a gift. ... That’s something you either have or you don’t have.”
But Daws doesn’t like to talk about what he does.
“Jim is quiet and a little bit hard to get to know,” Thompson said. “I’m much more inclined to pump my chest and let people know what we’re doing. He’s not that way at all. He’s quite the opposite. He’s very understated, low key, get-the-job-done kind of guy.”
Griffith is the numbers guy.
“He understands how the capital market works,” Thompson said. “He is a human spreadsheet ... and he keeps an eye on the bottom line.”
‘DID EXACTLY WHAT HE SAID’
Josh Rogers, president and CEO of NewTown Macon, was involved in planning College Hill and the vision for Mercer Village.
“And then Jim built exactly what we had dreamed up,” Rogers said. “He pulled together a team that was competent and capable. He did exactly what he said he was going to do, in the time he said he was going to do it, on the budget he said he was going to do it on.”
Daws now sits on NewTown’s board.
The impact of the developments has been “huge” on Macon-Bibb County, Rogers said.
“I think it sets an expectation, a precedent,” he said. “I think it really fuels community pride. They talk about developing something they are proud of, and I feel the same way.”
Griffith and Daws said they could make more money by going into other markets, but that’s not what they want to do now.
“We feel we can accomplish multiple things in this setting, which is do what we do for a living but do it in our hometown, do things we’re proud of and do things that we hope will last a lifetime,” Griffith said.
Not everybody has liked the design of every project, though.
The first design for Lofts at Tattnall was “very traditional,” Daws said. But the zoning commission’s Design Review Board said “it was awful,” he said.
“They said ‘we want something that looks like it was built today, not like it was built 50 years ago,’” he said. “So we tweaked it.”
Then when Lofts at College Hill, next to the main post office, was designed, Daws pulled together a peer group that included Rogers, architect Shannon Fickling, local history expert Maryel Battin, and Alex Morrison, executive director of the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority.
He asked them for guidance and also held a neighborhood meeting.
“I would say 95 percent of the people loved it,” Daws said. “And I think if somebody comes in town and they see developments like that, it makes them think, ‘well Macon is pretty cool, more modern.’”
Some letters to The Telegraph expressed a different opinion, saying they didn’t like the design and it looked dated. Rogers was aware of those critics.
“We are not going to have any architecture worth saving if we don’t design unique things now,” he said. “Only time will tell, but I think it’s great he’s trying to do something unique.”
Roger’s not concerned about all the new residential units coming online -- including other loft projects -- being too much too fast.
“We’re tracking everything that’s done or projected, and so far we are not even close to reaching saturation at least through 2017,” he said.
And more residential space creates more retail opportunities, Rogers said.
“Every 15 lofts or so equals enough new spending to fuel a new retail business,” he said. “There is certainly a causal relationship between having lofts come on line and the retail. It definitely goes hand in hand.”
To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223, or follow her on Twitter @MidGaBiz.
During the past five years, Sierra Development Group and its partners, Southern Pine Plantations and Piedmont Construction Group -- all based in Macon -- have completed seven developments and have another five under construction or in the planning stage.
MERCER UNIVERSITY PROJECTS
Lofts at Mercer Village (phase I)
Address: 1602 Montpelier
Square feet: 60,000
Commercial: Barnes & Noble, Margarita’s Mexican Grill, Fountain of Juice Express, Designer Tan.
Bedrooms: 117; three and four bedroom with private bath
Amenities: Fully furnished, washers, dryers, lounge, study rooms, cyber cafe, utilities included.
Parking: 117 spaces
Construction period: April, 2010-June 2011
Lofts at Mercer Village (phase II)
Address: 1675 Montpelier
Square feet: 40,000
Commercial: Center for Collaborative Journalism, Georgia Public Broadcasting, The Telegraph newsroom.
Bedrooms: 72; four bedroom, four bath
Amenities: Fully furnished, washers, dryers, lounge, study rooms, utilities included.
Construction period: Aug. 2011-July 2012
Lofts at Tattnall (phase III)
Address: 1250 College St.
Square feet: 55,000
Bedrooms: 111; four bedroom, four bath
Amenities: Fully furnished, washers, dryers, private bathrooms, lounge, study rooms, utilities included, cardio and billiards rooms
Parking: 104 spaces
Construction period: July 2013-Aug. 2014
Lofts at College Hill (phase IV)
Address: 1345 Hardeman Ave.
Square feet: 168,000
Commercial: The Brick, Boba Mocha
Bedrooms: 194; 48 two bedrooms; 98 one bedrooms
Amenities: Fully furnished, washers, dryers, walk-in closets, fitness center, yoga studio, outdoor fire-pit and grills, rooftop terrace, gated parking, house-keeping services, pet-friendly.
Parking: 260 spaces
Construction period: March 2014-August 2015
Lofts at Mercer Landing (phase V)
Address: 1500 Mercer University Drive
Square feet: 190,000 plus parking deck
Commercial: Mercer University offices.
Bedrooms: 313, One- two- three- and four-bedroom with private baths.
Amenities: Clubhouse with fitness center, yoga studio, game room, theater, cyber cafe, rooftop terrace, study rooms.
Parking: 408-space parking deck
Construction period: Jan. 2015-July 2016.
Mercer Landing (commercial)
Address: 1510, 1530, 1550 Mercer University Drive
Square feet: 17,800 food court and restaurant; 57,000 in 95-room hotel
Commercial: Chen’s Wok, Momma Goldberg’s, Papa John’s, Marriott Townplace Suites.
Construction period: March 2015-July 2016
Lofts at Bass (phase I)
Address: 5437 Bowman Road
Acres: 4.39 acres
Square feet: 80,000
Commercial: Pink Flamingo, Pediatric Dentistry, Genghis Grill, Olive in a Bottle, Merle Norman, Navicent Bariatric, Smallcakes.
Bedrooms: 85 with private baths
Amenities: Clubhouse, cabana with outdoor fireplace, saltwater pool, fitness center, washers, dryers, cable and Internet included.
Parking: Gated parking for residents; 24 private garages.
Construction period: Oct. 2013-April 2015.
Lofts at Bass (phase II)
Address: 5429 Bowman Road
Square feet: 48,000
Bedrooms: 54 with private baths
Amenities: Same as Phase I, plus walking trail
Parking: Same as Phase I
Construction period: Oct. 2015-Sept. 2016
Lofts at 401 Cherry
Address: 401 Cherry St.
Square feet: 40,000
Commercial: Bearfoot Tavern, Sierra Development Group Inc, Azar/Walsh Architects
Bedrooms: 29; one and two bedroom with private bath
Amenities: Great downtown views, all utilities included.
Parking: Adjoining parking deck.
Renovation period: Oct. 2012-May 2013.
Thomaston Crossing (apartments)
Address: 5744 Thomaston Road
Square feet: 250,000
Floors: Three and four
Bedrooms: one- two- and three-bedroom
Amenities: Clubhouse, fitness, cyber café, lounge, kitchen, outdoor kitchen, expansive resort-style saltwater pool.
Construction period: March 2013-Oct. 2014.
Lofts at Navicent
Address: 781 Spring St.
Square feet: 92,000
Commercial: TBD, 8,400 square feet
Bedrooms: 72 with private baths
Amenities: Washers, dryers, walk-in closets, wellness center, yoga studio, card access, gated parking, house-keeping services, pet-friendly.
Parking: 140 spaces in parking deck
Construction period: Nov. 2015-April 2017
Lofts at Zebulon (proposed)*
Address: 5801 Zebulon Road
Square feet: 377,842
Floors: Four (lofts only)
Commercial: TBD, 12,200 square feet and four fine and casual sit-down restaurants.
Bedrooms: One- two- and three-bedrooms.
Amenities: Clubhouse, cabana with outdoor fireplace, saltwater pool, fitness center, cyber café, urban gardens, direct access garages, cable and Internet included.
Construction period: Oct. 2016-March 2017
*Subject to P&Z Approval
Source: Sierra Development Group Inc. Compiled by staff writer Linda S. Morris.