A retail shopping survey recently conducted by Columbia County planners suggests most residents continue driving across the county line to shop.
More than 90 percent of the survey's 1,000 or so participants still shop in places like Augusta Mall or the Augusta Exchange.
That's a surprising figure considering the county has three Walmarts, including a new one in Grovetown; a Target, a Kohl's, a Home Depot, two Lowe's, an Academy Sports, and dozens more smaller retailers capable of meeting just about any needs.
But according to the survey, it's still not enough. Shoppers want more, such as a book store, an outlet mall, Old Navy or Pottery Barn.
After a recent meeting of the county's planning and zoning board, where the results of the survey were unveiled, commission Chairman Ron Cross said officials should refrain from using strict interpretations of the county's Growth Management Plan and ordinances. Giving wiggle-room would better enable new store construction in the county to meet shoppers' demands.
Cross also urges the revision of many county ordinances to give commissioners more "flexibility" to encourage retail growth.
Encouraging that growth, according to the survey's respondents, likely would cause them to spend more money in their own county - especially if they could go to an "outside walking market" or "town square type of shopping area."
Say; doesn't that sound an awful lot like Marshall Square?
The mixed-use project planned for a 47-acre patch of land between Evans Town Center and Industrial boulevards was to be a pedestrian-friendly destination, with a hotel, shops, galleries, restaurants and apartments. It easily would have met the demands identified in the survey.
Instead, commissioners and planning officials micro-managed, nitpicked, fussed over and eventually torpedoed the project when they drastically cut the number of apartments allowed in the development.
Developers said the county's revised apartment numbers would no longer make the project profitable. They argue the apartments are needed as a selling point for commercial projects, which these days are pretty hard to come by.
Common sense suggests it would be easier to persuade a potential retailer or restaurateur to take a chance on Marshall Square if they know hundreds of potential patrons will be housed within walking distance of their front doors.
Instead, the project sits idle while the county and Marshall Square developers wrangle over a $57 million lawsuit filed because of the county's rejection of the apartment project.
As a result, the only evidence of a project that seemed poised to become Evans' answer to downtown Augusta is a Chili's restaurant surrounded by a prairie-like landscape.
Cross's call for "flexibility" is welcome, especially in such a challenging commercial development environment. Too bad that change of heart came too late to knock down the barriers to Marshall Square.
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