This is a tremendous week for Columbia County, one that will be looked back upon for years to come with a mixture of pride, amazement and anxiety.
Mullins Crossing is opening, and Columbia County's retail environment will never be the same. Nor will Washington Road traffic.
As the shopping center's stores begin opening to the public, the mammoth project carries with it a hint of what economists call a tipping point.
Prior to Mullins Crossing, the biggest single retail project to come to Columbia County was Wal-Mart. But as big and successful as that store is, it still represents only an expansion in existing territory.
Kohl's, which opens Thursday morning, is different. The Wisconsin-based department store chain is planting its first CSRA store right here in Columbia County. Complementing the Target store that also is opening in Mullins Crossing, Kohl's represents a shift in corporate retail focus toward our growing community, away from the mature Augusta market.
It's a change that evokes chest-thumping pride and knee-shaking fright: Pride at the confidence such a shift places on our community's leadership and its people, and fear at the traffic nightmares ahead. Washington Road could soon reach its own tipping point as gridlocked motorists hit their boiling point.
Let's face it: A developer can build a new shopping center much faster than state highway officials will move on road projects. Even with Mullins Crossing coming on line this week, Robert Reid, a Georgia Department of Transportation project manager, says the DOT has no plans to make any further improvements on that narrow section of Washington Road for another six years.
Washington Road is a state highway, but County Commission Chairman Ron Cross knows the county has leverage in convincing the DOT about what projects are most needed. Currently, he says, the county is putting its focus on widening the road from Wal-Mart to Halali Farm Road, and on adding a center turn lane from Flowing Wells Road to Club Car.
There are no plans to do anything else to the section of Washington Road on either side of Mullins Crossing other than entrance improvements the developer has constructed. Consequently, the shopping center's certain, massive success will undoubtedly bring with it equally huge traffic jams.
More improvements to the county's main thoroughfare obviously are needed. Washington Road congestion "is not a growth problem; it's a safety problem," says state Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans. "And if the DOT doesn't do something about it, we're going to have lives lost, and it's on their hands because we've been asking for this for years. ... At some point DOT has to be held liable when it's a safety concern, and this one truly is."
Mullins Crossing is a remarkable new development, and will help Columbia County recapture much of the sales-tax revenue that currently flows across the county line. Part of the price for that success is that motorists will spend more time spent stuck in traffic on a road that the state needs to expand now - not in six years.
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