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Economy takes toll on new shopping centers

While some fairly new strip shopping centers in Macon and Warner Robins have managed to fill most of their spaces, others are sitting with several vacancies after developers were caught in the down cycle of the economy. At least one center is facing foreclosure.

Developers and leasing agents are getting creative at filling spaces as they offer tenants reduced rent, building out the interiors to suit the tenant and even seeking out people who want to start their own business.

During 2001-2007, a lot of shopping center space was built because there was readily available capital for construction and a strong market for purchasing the center when it was completed, said Kevin Polston, vice president of retail development for Atlanta-based Opus South Corp. Consumer spending was particularly strong in 2004-2006, which fueled more demand.

“So that really led to an oversupply of space,” Polston said. “There are very few spaces I visit across the country that don’t have an inventory of unleased space.”

Opus South developed The Shoppes at Macon, 6435 Zebulon Road, which includes 125,000 square feet of retail space and nearly 300 apartments. Zaxby’s, CVS and Advance Auto Parts have opened in outparcels they purchased but only two tenants — Bass Cleaners and Le Nails — have moved into the strip center.

With consumer spending dropping during the past 18 months, sales decreased and so store growth was put on hold and in some cases dried up as some retailers went out of business, Polston said.

“What we’ve seen in the last few months is an increased emphasis in marketing (space) to Mom and Pop’s,” Polston said. “They have more flexibility in working through their business plan, even though they are restrained by capital markets, too, to get loans to expand.”

Also developers are courting more “value-priced retailers” which offer more reasonable price points, he said.

Another small strip shopping center called Zebulon Plaza, 6394 Zebulon Road, across from the Opus South center, is facing foreclosure, according to a legal advertisement. It has a Bass Cleaners, with about seven spaces vacant. The original loan amount, held by CB&T Bank of Middle Georgia, is for $2.13 million, according to the legal notice. The owner of the center and the attorney for the bank did not return phone calls.

Porter Station, with the Whistle Stop Café as an anchor, on Houston Road in south Bibb County has managed to stay mostly full since it’s been built.

Eddie Parker, owner of Eddie Parker & Associates, said he’s had to be creative in finding tenants for the center and in helping his existing tenants.

Parker has sought out people who have lost their jobs and people who live in the community who want to start their own business, he said. Current tenants have passed along suggestions for other tenants. Parker encourages people he comes in contact with to use the fitness center there.

He has a 1,500-square-foot space available — out of the 22,000-square-foot center — with negotiations underway on another space, he said. The remainder of the center is full. One tenant, a consignment shop, Nanny’s Place, is even expanding and adding furniture to its offerings, he said.

“I think tenant mix is critical,” Parker said. “We’ve been lucky to be where we are. Hopefully we will get through this hard time.”

Last spring, the former Bruster’s ice cream shop building was torn down and a new building was to contain two restaurants: Subway and Wow Cafe & Wingery.

But the economy has put the brakes on that project moving forward, said Lou Patel, partner of Wow Cafes of Georgia Inc., so the building sits vacant.

However, he is moving forward with construction of a Wow Cafe on Watson Boulevard in Warner Robins, which is expected to be completed this spring.

Some small strip centers in Warner Robins have a number of empty spaces:

Ÿ Oaisis Plaza on Houston Lake Road near Leverett Road is anchored by Satterfield & Dempsey Jewelers in a standalone building, but only three tenants are in one building with five empty spaces, and a third building is vacant with about eight spaces.

Ÿ Lochlyn Plaza on Houston Lake Road has about seven empty spaces with 14 spaces filled.

Ÿ A strip center adjacent to the shopping center on Watson Boulevard with Kohl’s department store has a total of nine spaces, and three are occupied.

Another center, tentatively called The Highway 41 Center, with a total of 12,000 square feet is under construction on U.S. 41. Leasing agent Scott Taylor with Exit Realty said this type of center is needed for small businesses looking for a more affordable center.

“We are looking at creating condo offices,” Taylor said. “The note you are going to pay (for the condo) will be less than renting.”

Taylor is optimistic that tenants will be interested even during the current economy.

“It’s a good concept, and there is enough demand for this kind of space,” he said. “I feel things will work out.”

To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.

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