Martinez once was Columbia County's commercial mecca, and some want to see the area regain that status.
In the 1970s, before commercial growth in the county centered on Evans, stores and restaurants along the Washington Road corridor through Martinez followed a new batch of residents moving to the area and offered them viable shopping options outside of Richmond County.
Today, the thoroughfare contains a collection of storefronts with uninviting facades and heavy traffic congestion. More than 80 stores are empty.
The only reason some people still patronize the area is for "pizza and a tattoo," said county Development Services Director Richard Harmon.
"People ride through Martinez to get to Evans, and they're riding like this," said Harmon, with his hands cupped around the sides of his eyes. "It's tunnel vision. They're not looking County officials and Martinez business owners recently met to discuss ways to revitalize Martinez and the problems they face in doing so.
George Snelling, a Columbia County developer and owner of self-storage facilities on Davis Road and Washington Road, said that he has witnessed a steady decline in the income level of his customers since he opened his business in 1995.
Until that demographic improves, he said, attracting new, high-profile businesses to Martinez might prove too daunting.
The median household income of those living within a three-mile radius of Washington and North Belair roads is about $78,000, Snelling said.
"That's the kind of demographic that big-box retailers are looking for," he said.
Within the same radius surrounding the intersection of Washington and Davis roads, the median household income probably drops to about half that of Evans, Snelling said.
Traffic congestion poses another difficulty in attracting patrons, some business owners believe. According to county officials, estimates show that about 70,000 vehicles travel on Washington Road through Martinez each weekday.
That's a good thing, said CSRA Camperland owner Doc Allen.
The problem, Allen said, is that "no one wants to wait 15 minutes at a stoplight."
Also, many motorists won't stop at a shop in Martinez if such a move would force them to make a left-hand turn to get back onto a crowded Washington Road.
Easing traffic congestion might prove to the be easiest problem to solve.
Already in place in the Evans Town Center are "smart" traffic signals.
Each signal is equipped with cameras that feed to a computer terminal and provide almost instantaneous updates of traffic.
The computers at each of the intersections equipped with the smart lights are connected through a fiber-optic network.
The signals "talk" to each other to cluster traffic into groups and move each group down the road to ease congestion.
County Commissioner Charles Allen said plans already are in the works to extend the smart lights farther down Washington Road and into Martinez to create a more manageable traffic flow.
Another tactic county officials might consider is updating a 2005 Martinez revitalization plan.
County Development Authority Executive Director Troy Post said officials should consider applying to the Community Trade Adjustment Assistance program for federal funding from the U.S. Commerce Department to update the plan.
Whatever update of the plan might be offered, it would have to be more fiscally feasible, Harmon said.
The 2005 plan, which calls for extensive road improvements, the construction of a sidewalk network, new land use codes, new facades, and more, would cost as much as $33 million to implement.
Martinez land owner Billy Jackson suggested that officials consider offering grants to improve facades, but Harmon said that no money exists at a local or state level for such grants, especially considering the current economic status.
Jim Cox, a county planning commissioner, suggested the use of tax allocation districts to raise funds for improvements in Martinez.
Within those districts, property taxes collected above a certain threshold could be used to fund improvements or facade grants. That way, the stakeholders in the area would be funding the improvements.
Columbia County taxpayers rejected such a tax district in a 2007 referendum.
Harmon believes Martinez landowners and the county should consider, in the initial revitalization effort, shifting the focus away from Washington Road to the area between West Town shopping center and the Walmart on Bobby Jones Expressway.
"There's a lot of land there that already is developable," said Harmon.
"That area is where I believe it is most feasible to start a revitalization effort centered on a town square theme," he said. "There's already been some work to clear up the mobile homes scattered around that area for years."
Harmon warned that efforts to revitalize Martinez won't be immediately forthcoming, but said the recent meeting between officials and land owners was a good start.
"There are some negatives to the area, but those can be turned into positives," he said. "We just got to keep (a dialogue) going."
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