The News Courier
— From staff reports
An empty 4-acre parcel on U.S. 72 west that once served as the location for Clayton Homes will soon be the site of a new shopping center development.
Athens developer Bill Ming announced his plans for Athens Shoppes at the Nov. 20 Planning Commission meeting. The site plan for the 31,925-square-foot development received unanimous approval by the board.
Construction on the $5 million shopping center is slated to begin in early spring, and be completed by fall 2013. Though no tenants have been announced, Ming said they would begin taking occupancy in the center by late summer.
The development will include 10 to 12 businesses and be a mix of retail, restaurants and service businesses. It will also provide 100 to 150 jobs and provide estimated annual sales tax revenues of $750,000 to $1 million.
Ming said he’s worked for more than a year to target expanding and new businesses for the development. Factors those businesses consider before opening a new location, he said, include the trade-area population within a 5-mile radius, the number of houses, median income, employment base, co-tenancy (other businesses), competition and existing anchor tenants
“Most businesses want to be in the shadow of an anchor business because they require the best visibility, traffic and exposure,” he said.
Ming, who has been recruiting businesses to Athens for more than 15 years, said he feels positive about future opportunities for the community, but added there are challenges. He pointed to recent efforts by leaders in Decatur, Madison and Huntsville to add to its retail base through offering incentives packages to help pay for the cost of developments.
“This part of recruiting retail is very competitive and we need to continue our focus on being able to offer the same type incentives that our competing communities offer to retail developments similar to what we have historically offered to industry,” he said.
He added that some national retailers and service businesses feel they can serve the Athens and Limestone markets from those neighboring cities because the drive time is less than 15 minutes.
“This limits some of our opportunities for new retail, restaurants and service businesses,” he said, adding he’s had at least a half dozen opportunities that did not materialize because they chose to locate in Madison and Huntsville closer to the corridor of U.S. 72 between County Line and Wall-Triana roads.
Despite the lure of those other cities, Ming believes Athens still has plenty to offer in terms of desirable locations. He predicts retail growth over the next three to five years would be adjacent to existing anchors, including Walmart and Publix.
The city has other prime locations, he said, including the northwest quadrant of U.S. 72 and Interstate 65 where Logan’s, Ruby Tuesday’s, Holiday Inn Express and Chick-fil-A are located.
A new Fairfield Suites under construction in the same quadrant should be completed by spring, and Ming said an out-of-town developer has plans to turn the former Backyard Burgers building into an IHOP. That project should be open in April 2013 he said.
Other potential development sites include the Tanner exchange off Interstate 65, though Ming said the site lacks infrastructure, rooftops and traffic from “major arterial roads.” He added that would change over time, given Huntsville’s long-term development plans and a planned widening of Huntsville-Browns Ferry Road.
“What's great about interstate locations is it not only serves your local market but it pulls out-of-towners and travelers off U.S. 72 and I-65,” he said. “They're spending their dollars here without any cost to us in terms of providing services because they don't live here.”
Despite Ming’s aforementioned challenges, he said he feels positive about the city’s future and it’s existing amenities, which are attractive to residents and businesses alike.
“We are blessed to live in a great community with the best to offer from our historical downtown to the latest and greatest along U.S. 72 and Interstate 65,” he said. “Great schools, great people and great location; (it’s) a winning combination.”