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Projects uncertain in credit crunch
[November 16, 2008]

Projects uncertain in credit crunch

(The Decatur Daily (AL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Nov. 16--For the past two years, Decatur has had no shortage of positive economic news.

With plans for several large-scale developments, it seemed that billions would be invested in the River City.

But now -- as stock markets decline, financial institutions and automakers line up for government bailouts, and consumers tighten their spending -- the national economy and credit crunch are nibbling at future economic growth.

Of five major development projects announced for Decatur over the past two years, only one was moving forward last week, unimpeded by the waning economy.

As for the rest, developers have either delayed their groundbreaking dates, citing poor economic conditions, or they remain uncertain players in Decatur's future economic growth.

Academy Sports

Announced in October, the most recent of Decatur's five largest development projects is the only one on schedule.

John Hay, a spokesman for Texas-based Academy Sports and Outdoors, said company officials still plan to build a 74,863-square-foot store off Beltline Road Southwest.

Despite the sluggish economy, he said, they also plan to open the store next summer.

"We have submitted our drawings for (building) permits," he said, "and we're scheduling a meeting with the city to discuss the project in more detail."

Academy officials plan to begin construction in January, leaving them roughly six months to complete the project.

"Academy Sports and Outdoors is definitely coming to Decatur, and we're looking forward to it," said Carl Main, Academy's vice president of marketing.


Unlike Academy, Decatur's largest proposed development has been delayed more than once.

Announced in March by development firm Genesis U.S.A., the proposed Sweetwater project is mammoth.

According to company officials, it would turn a 536-acre cotton field on Alabama 20 into an independent city, with retail and office space, entertainment venues, a hotel and residential areas. Anchored by a 144,000-square-foot Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, the development would take an estimated $1.3 billion and eight to 10 years to complete, Genesis officials said.

But Sweetwater's future remains uncertain.

In September, Bass Pro officials cited poor economic conditions when they announced they were delaying ground- breaking for a third time, making a store opening unlikely before summer 2010.

"As soon as we can get through this downturn in the economy, we expect for it to get kicked off," said Genesis attorney Barney Lovelace. "Hopefully, that would be next spring or summer, but a lot of that is dependent on how the national economy does."

Additionally, Genesis officials say, they have not found a replacement for hotel developer John Q. Hammons, who backed out of the project months ago -- though they say they are negotiating with Hammons and other hotel developers.

Decatur Mall

When New York-based First Republic Group Realty purchased Decatur Mall on Beltline Road last year, city officials said they hoped the new owners would renovate the 1970s-era retail center.

They seemed to get their wish nearly five months later in December, when officials with Jones Lang LaSalle, a company hired to manage the mall, announced they planned a full-scale renovation to modernize the facility and attract new tenants. At the time, spokesman Rick Vita said he would release renovation plans by May.

"We're 100 percent behind redeveloping Decatur Mall," he said.

But mall officials have pulled back since then.

"We're currently re-evaluating all of our options regarding any mall renovation and really don't have a time frame in place for anything firm," said mall manager Chris Carmosino.

Former Mayor Don Kyle said mall officials had requested a $7 million incentive from the city to help fund the renovation. But, he said, he turned down the request months ago and had not heard back from them when he left office Nov. 3.

"I think they know pretty clearly that the public participation they were asking for was way too high," he said.

City Attorney Herman Marks said Wednesday that mall officials had requested a meeting with the new administration to discuss their renovation plans, but he was not sure when they would meet.

The Crossings of Decatur

When the Crossings of Decatur opened late last year on Alabama 67, officials with Nashville-based development firm GBT Realty said they were interested in expanding the complex.

Proposing an 117,724-square-foot second phase, they offered the Morgan County School System $2.4 million for a 12-acre site adjacent to the complex.

But school officials rejected the offer, saying it was not enough for them to move the school's central offices already located at the site.

"We're not going into debt over relocating our central office," said Superintendent Bob Balch.

The rejection was apparently enough to halt the expansion plan -- or at least delay it.

While GBT owner George Tomlin evaluated the property in December, Balch said he has not heard back from the developer since. Requests for comment from GBT officials were not answered.

Burleson Mountain

Announced in May 2006 by Tuscaloosa-based developer Joe Duckworth, The Ridge on Burleson Mountain would convert the Indian Hills Golf Course in Southeast Decatur into an upscale residential community.

Duckworth utilized a new city program to share the cost of running sewer about a mile to the site, where he planned to sell 400 residential lots.

While he hoped to begin selling lots last summer, conflicts with Decatur Utilities have delayed the project.

Initially, Duckworth and DU officials disagreed when the utility provider declined to accept maintenance of the development's sewer lines because Duckworth planned to use a pumping station instead of standard gravity lines.

While DU later agreed to accept maintenance of the system, Duckworth said the provider requested he build a system that was much larger than needed and unaffordable.

He said his own engineers and DU officials continue work to reduce the size of the system, but he was not sure when they would complete the task. He also said he did not know when he would begin selling lots.

"We can't seem to get our final cost in," he said. "Once we do that, we'll start selling lots."

Even then, Duckworth said, the economy could be a concern.

"We just haven't gotten to the point where we can decide whether to move forward or put it on hold," he said. "We need to get our cost in and then look at the economy and things like that at that point."

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