When Bass Pro Shops announced six years ago it was coming to Bass Road in north Bibb County, local and state officials and real estate developers were predicting an economic boom for that area.
Land prices rose sky high. Massive projects were announced that would bring mixtures of hotels, restaurants, retailers and offices along the commercial end of Bass Road near Interstate 75.
Then the economy didn’t boom. It deflated nationwide in a big way. The recession that ensued put a screeching halt to many projects and others moved along, but much slower than expected.
Fickling & Co., which owns hundreds of acres of land adjacent to Bass Pro Shops and on the south side of Bass Road, was geared up and in position to build hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail and commercial buildings.
“When the world fell apart ... when the financial world and the real estate world (crashed), we were very fortunate that we had not gone vertical,” said company president and CEO Roy Fickling. “A lot of developers were in the middle of building and half way through projects, and the world stopped as far as retail leasing went and they were left with a half-completed center and not enough income to service the debt. ... When all that happened, it didn’t make sense to try to push on a string, as I like to say, so we decided to sit back and wait for the world to get better.”
Patience is beginning to pay off.
“We seem to be getting a lot of traction now,” Fickling said.
Fickling took the plans for the North Macon Plaza project -- located on the south side of Bass Road across from the Bass Pro Shops’ entrance -- to the International Council of Shopping Centers real estate convention last month in Las Vegas.
“We had a very, very good reception from major retailers that are now just starting to gear back up,” he said.
Fickling has teamed up with Atlanta-based Cousins Properties Inc. to market and develop the North Macon Plaza project. Cousins is a large real estate company that’s been in business more than 50 years.
“We’ve made very good progress and everything is back on track now,” Fickling said. “Right now we’re planning on a 2013 opening. That would mean we need to get leasing done within nine months to a year for us to make that schedule.”
The restaurant properties that Fickling has sold along Bass Road, including Zaxby’s, McDonald’s, J. Christopher’s and Mirko Pasta, are doing well, he said.
T.J. Heath, co-owner of the Mirko franchise, agrees.
“It’s going good,” Heath said. “The economy kind of has everything in a slump everywhere, but there is a lot of good things planning to come.”
Heath said most of his customers are from local businesses up and down Bass Road, such as the Georgia Farm Bureau, Ikon and residents of Lullwater at Bass apartments. Some customers traveling I-75 come in, too.
“People who hunt and fish going to Bass Pro Shops will stop in and also Bass Pro workers,” he said. “And a lot of people bring their family back on weekends. ... A lot of people have showed support, but I think everybody over there could use more traffic.”
Time to build
Not only have some new businesses opened recently along Bass Road, but others are in the works.
Chick-fil-A is breaking ground next week at 1596 Bass Road at Bowman Road for its sixth restaurant in Macon. It is expected to open in October. Pig in a Pit, which closed earlier this year, is apparently going to reopen under new management. A handwritten sign on the door states it will open July 1, but several calls to the manager were not returned.
Rob Ballard, owner of development company Placemaker LLC, who is developing a mixed-use project -- Providence Village North Macon -- on the north side of Bass Road between I-75 and the Providence subdivision, says things are looking up.
The anchor for the development, Homewood Suites Hotel, opened in 2009, and upscale restaurant Natalia’s opened last year on the site. While both of these businesses are doing well, the struggling economy slowed down projected growth at the site.
That is changing.
“We are more optimistic today than we have been for the last three years,” Ballard said.
In April, a newly constructed doctor’s office opened behind the hotel.
Dr. W. Jason Woods LLC, moved to its 2,500-square-foot internal medicine office from downtown Macon, where Woods had had an office since 1999, said Trisha Woods, office manager and Dr. Woods’ wife.
“We took a gamble moving out, but it’s been great,” Woods said. “We just wanted to try something new and hit a side of town where there wasn’t anybody right now.”
The Woods considered for about a year several other locations in Macon and Bibb County before choosing the site.
“We loved the ‘work, play, eat’ kind of concept that Providence had to offer,” she said. “We have seen an increase in patients just in the few weeks we’ve been here. ... I’m telling you, business is going to be booming for whoever moves out there.”
Another addition to the Providence Village site is an urgent care center that Coliseum Medical Center will own and operate. Plans are to construct a 6,500-square-foot building between Homewood Suites and Bass Road. Ballard said ground should break on that project within the next 30 days.
Also, a dentist office is under construction next to Woods Medical office, which should be open in the next 12 months, he said.
“We are seeing an upswing in activity in inquires,” Ballard said. “We are getting phone calls again. ... The funding for new projects is still tight, but there is funding there so we are seeing more activity.”
Although a pharmacy had been planned east of the hotel, that has not been finalized, he said. However, Flash Foods should be breaking ground this fall for a convenience store with a Dairy Queen next to the I-75 exit ramp and Bass Road.
Across the street from the hotel, activity in the Publix shopping center has not been competition for Ballard’s project, he said.
“Activity breeds activity, no doubt,” he said. “It brings more attention to the area and to the site.”
Some showing progress; others on hold
Florida-based Publix Super Markets will celebrate its second anniversary June 24 at its north Bibb County store, Brenda Reid, media and community relations manager for the Atlanta market, said in an e-mail.
“It is our fastest growing store in the market,” Reid said. The company has two stores in Bibb County and three in Houston County.
The 45,000-square-foot store’s success has been due in part to its location just off I-75 and the residential and commercial growth around the store, she said.
“The cluster of businesses support the neighborhood and give customers a chance to shop where they live,” she said.
Coleman Morris is an Atlanta broker with Seattle-based Colliers International, and she is the leasing agent for the shopping center.
“We did pre-leasing and that was right before everything turned with the economy,” Morris said. “Then we have had a few vacancies since that time.”
The past couple of years have been bad for retail and “we took a hit there,” she said, just like many other developments.
“That center is unique in that we are really the only grocery-anchored center out there,” Morris said. “So because of that, even though there were a lot of landlords who were willing to give away the farm to get a deal, we weren’t willing to do that. ... We knew we had a quality product so we’ve kept our rates consistent.”
Patience paying off
Morris has a lease to be signed on one space and letters of intent for three other spaces in the shopping center. About 5,600-square-feet of space in the 65,000-square-foot center is still available for lease.
The site is a major draw to the area, Morris said.
“It has just great demographics,” she said. “You’ve got high income, got a lot of new growth in that area and we feel that’s where the population is trending for Macon.”
Since the first of this year, Morris has seen “a lot of activity,” she said. “Activity all over seems to be picking up -- not just Macon but Atlanta, too. It’s been a nice change.”
That’s not the case for everyone marketing property along Bass Road.
Associate broker Jim Rollins, with Macon-based The Summit Group, represents Waycross-based The Jones Co., owner of a 40-acre site bordered by Bass Road, New Forsyth Road and Riverside Drive.
The Jones Co. is the parent company for Flash Foods and it bought the property in 2007, Rollins said. While the company is not in the development business, it was looking for a convenience store site on a portion of the property, but since it was priced so high the company decided to buy the whole tract, he said. It remains vacant.
“It’s certainly available,” Rollins said.
Flash Foods has picked the south side of Bass Road and I-75 to build a store.
“They probably couldn’t sell (the 40-acre site) for what they paid for it,” Rollins said. “But they understand that.”
Rollins also went to the shopping center convention in Las Vegas last month and took along information on this site.
The majority of retailers seemed to think the market is improving, he said.
“Those retailers that are well-capitalized are doing OK,” he said. “But the smaller merchants, the mom and pops, are struggling to beat the band, which is no surprise.”
He also learned that three things could derail the economy: local, state and federal government debt, energy prices and the fact that salaries of the middle-class and lower income families have not increased for the past two-three years, “which could be a real problem for the recovery,” he said.
Retailers are not going to expand “in any fringe or new markets because they think the housing recovery is five years away,” he said. “So they are not willing to take a chance on getting outside of established markets. They are going only in areas with high populations or underserved by that particular retailer.”
While Rollins is keeping “pretty busy” these days, he is having to travel outside Middle Georgia to survive, he said. “Of course it’s harder to make a deal right now, but I’ve had a couple of big closings this month.”
But like Fickling and Ballard, Rollins said things seem to be on the upswing.
The retailers at the ICSC convention were “more optimistic,” Rollins said. “There is more anticipation and interest in the market.”
To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.