Oconee County has now issued at least some form of building permit for nearly two-thirds of the total commercial space in Epps Bridge Centre, the new shopping mall at the Oconee Connector and SR Loop 10.
Most of those permits are for the core of the shopping center, which preliminary site plans indicated would make up more than 80 percent of the total mall space.
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Based on county water and sewer records, about 90 percent of the permitted retail space is leased.
The new mall already has put pressure on existing retail space in the area, with four of the tenants closing stores on the Atlanta Highway to move to the new mall. A fifth tenant has a store on Atlanta Highway and is likely to close it when it opens its new store in the Oconee County mall.
Developer Frank Bishop has built only about three-quarters of the retail space in the core’s center, so that pressure on the existing retail market is likely to continue.
Outparcels The Exception
The county has issued permits for only one of the 12 outparcels on the strip mall, and that permit accounts for less than 10 percent of the total outparcel square footage. The outparcels surround the mall core and stretch down a now empty mall roadway leading to an entrance on Epps Bridge Parkway.
In initial plans, many of those outparcels were to be used by restaurants.
Athens-Clarke County continues to have an advantage in competing in that segment of the market.
Oconee County does not have liquor by the drink, and many restaurant companies rely on the profits from alcohol sales as part of their calculations of likely market success.
Bishop has not been shy in stating that he wants the county to change its liquor policy, a number of county officials and others familiar with Chamber of Commerce discussions have told me.
Firm Figures And Estimates
B.R. White, director of Code Enforcement for Oconee County, gave me the figures for total permitted square footage for the shopping mall on Tuesday night. At that time, 312,125 square feet of space had been permitted, and no permits were issued later in the week.
Bishop has flexibility in how he can use that total space, but he would have to come back to the Board of Commissioners if he wanted to go beyond it.
The estimate of 401,715 square feet in the mall core comes from preliminary site plans, and some buildings already have deviated from those plans.
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Building 300, housing Off Broadway and Marshalls, was shown to have 116,246 square feet in preliminary plans. Only 44,000 of that space has been built. Building 100, where Dick’s Sporting Goods, Pier 1, Petsmart and other stores are located, was shown at 122,175 in preliminary plans, and only 112,702 of that has been built.
Media reports, based on conversations with Bishop and preliminary documents submitted to the county, have identified potential additional tenants for the shopping mall. Building permits and county water and sewer records are the most concrete way of identifying actual mall tenants.
Developers have to obtain a series of permits, including for the foundation, the shell and the interior space of the building. The latter permit usually indicates a tenant if one has signed a lease. Water and sewer fees also list identified tenants.
The Oconee Enterprise reported in its Aug. 15 edition that Taqueria Tsunami, a restaurant with Latin and Asian cuisine, will open in the mall in November. Bishop was the source of the story, as well as one about the restaurant on Oconee Patch on Aug. 27.
Bishop has paid water and sewer capacity fees for retail use for the buildings so far permitted for the mall, according to Jenanne White, Oconee County Utility Department administrative assistant.
So far, he has not come back to the Utility Department to pay additional fees as required for operation of a restaurant, White told me on Friday, though, she, too, has heard that Bishop intends to do so.
So far, all of the tenants identified for the mall are national retailers. Most are entering a market already featuring other national retailers.
National retailer Guitar Center, scheduled to open in one of the buildings still under construction, is an exception to this pattern.
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The local market now is dominated by Musician’s Warehouse, just west of the Georgia Square Mall on Atlanta Highway, and Chick Musik, 240 W. Clayton Street, in downtown Athens.
Both are locally owned.
Guitar Center operates internationally as well as throughout the U.S. and is a retailer of musical instruments. Guitar Center is based in Westlake Village, Calif. It’s closest store is in Lawrenceville.
Shift To Oconee
The Gap closed its store in Georgia Square Mall shortly before opening its store in Epps Bridge Centre. Children’s Place, also in Georgia Square Mall, is scheduled to open in the same building as The Gap in the new mall.
Alumni Hall, which opened in Epps Bridge Centre in time for the start of University of Georgia football on Saturday, closed its store in Georgia Square Mall in March.
Old Navy, a Gap Inc. store, closed its store in Athens Promenade on Atlanta High to move to Epps Bridge Centre.
Pier 1 Imports closed its store on Atlanta Highway last week in preparation for its opening in Epps Bridge Centre.
Old Vs. New Gateway
The Atlanta Highway was the old entrance to Athens from the west, carrying both U.S. 78 and U.S. 29 into the city. Commercial development along the roadway reflected those traffic patterns.
The completion of SR 316 in sections provided in the late 1990s an alternate entrance to Athens and opened up land along its route for development.
The property that is now Epps Bridge Centre was largely inaccessible until the Georgia Department of Transportation awarded a $13.5 million contract for the Oconee Connector Extension in June of 2009. Bishop bought the land for the roadway and then sold it to GDOT.
The development of the shopping mall was on hold until that roadway was completed last year.