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Busy roads fuel growth

As Bibb continues expansion toward Atlanta, retail follows course

By Debbie Rhyne
The Macon Telegraph

It doesn't take a Macon old-timer to remember the days when an interchange didn't exist at Interstate 75 and Arkwright Road.

Or when Hartley Bridge Road was just an empty exit between Macon and Byron.

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Chart showing traffic counts for major Bibb County roads, requires free Adobe Acrobat Reader

Or when Bass Road was out in the country.

But those days are long gone, as all three areas have seen a increase in development in recent years.

"Macon is growing toward Atlanta. It's growing toward Byron and Lake Tobesofkee," said Bill Ramsbottom Sr., president and CEO of The Ramsbottom Co. "Why? Ease of traffic."

About 50 percent of Bibb County's 252 square miles of land is developed. Another 25 percent can't be developed because of wetlands or flood plains, said Paul Nagle, president of the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce.

That leaves 25 percent still up for grabs. And that area is disappearing, as commercial and retail growth boom across parts of Bibb County.

The growth is fueled mostly by road improvements and growing suburban areas, Nagle said.

Nearly 90,000 people travel on some part of I-75 in Bibb County each day, nearly 40,000 use I-475 and about 74,000 use I-16 in what is the nation's 121st largest metropolitan statistical area. And it's only going to get busier, as the county's population is projected to climb by another 4,000 people to reach nearly 160,000 by 2002.

Traffic counts and demographic studies are the tools of the trade for retailers looking to locate a business, said Karen Satterwhite, who handles commercial sales and leasing for Fickling & Co.

"They're also looking for where the residential developments are going, where their competing retailers are," she said. "Basically, the rule is (commercial growth) follows the growth of the population."

"You always look to see where the city is growing," Ramsbottom said of scoping out areas for development. "It's growing up I-75, up 475 and between those two."

Other factors that contribute to retail growth are Macon's status as a regional commercial center.

Residents of surrounding areas come to Bibb County for things such as federal court, serious medical procedures and probation office visits, Nagle said. And the interstate-highway system almost guarantees the county's restaurants, gas stations and 5,000 hotel rooms will see out-of-town business.

About 40 cents of every retail dollar spent in Bibb County comes from someone who doesn't live here, Nagle said.

The I-75 corridor

"That 75 corridor will probably always be in demand from users because of the traffic," said Larry Crumbley, vice president of Fickling & Co.'s commercial division.

Along I-75, interchanges at Arkwright/Tom Hill Sr. Boulevard, Bass Road, Riverside Drive and Hartley Bridge Road are seeing growth.

Many of the new businesses were not necessarily planned, but more the efforts of local developers who bought land as road improvements were made.

"It's sort of an art," Ramsbottom said of keying in on areas where retail growth will occur. "A good way of anticipating where big commercial growth is going to go is to look where they're going to put dollars to widen the roads."

It was that kind of foresight that allowed Ramsbottom to cash in on development at the I-75 and Arkwright exchange.

He saw plans for an interchange, and in 1985 bought 50 acres where he later built the shopping center housing Kroger and Kmart that anchors the west side of Tom Hill.

Construction of the interchange set off the spark for growth, Ramsbottom said.

"It created that commercial node," he said. "What makes it grow is people."

Since that time, both sides of Tom Hill have filled with restaurants, retail and speciality stores. Across the interstate, Arkwright has a cluster of restaurants and hotels near the interchange with industrial and office space facilities growing out toward the Monroe County line.

"Tom Hill is saturated," Satterwhite said. "There's really no where to go on Tom Hill and Northside (Drive)."

"The buildable land is limited to Arkwright, and that's going to limit any significant growth," Crumbley said.

As Arkwright and Tom Hill have "filled up," the new growth is shifting closer to Atlanta. The next two northern I-75 exits - Riverside Drive and then Bass Road - also are picking up their share of development. Both have lots of new office space, and there are plans for a residential subdivision at Bass Road.

At the southern end of I-75 in Bibb County lies another hotbed of development - the Hartley Bridge Road exchange. A new shopping center, anchored by a grocery store, is just the beginning of what will likely be more new places, said Ramsbottom, who developed the center.

"People ask why you want to put a grocery store out there," Ramsbottom said. "Hello! Go up in a helicopter and look at all the (houses') rooftops."

Suburbia and I-475

Zebulon Road also is in the middle of growing pains. Adjacent to I-475, the road has easy access to the interstate and is near several burgeoning suburban developments.

Several stores and a movie theater are open, and a Lowe's-anchored shopping center, a retirement community, apartments and another shopping center all are in the works.

"I think everyone was surprised (Zebulon) grew so quick and so fast," Ramsbottom said. "But what's the only way to get from (U.S.) 41 to (I-)475?"

Last week, the Macon-Bibb County Planning and Zoning Commission voted to deny plans for a Wal-Mart-anchored shopping center, office space and an apartment complex at Zebulon and Lamar roads. But it may be only a temporary roadblock to what seems inevitable -- more growth along Zebulon.

"I'm going to say the market will force it to happen," Ramsbottom said of Zebulon growth. "It may be later than sooner."

Other areas to watch

Despite new growth in specific areas of Bibb County, it's the more established retail areas that have the highest traffic counts - Eisenhower Parkway, Pio Nono Avenue and Gray Highway.

New businesses still spring up along these three corridors, but growth it slowing.

"(Eisenhower) is pretty much saturated through now, and it's probably going to start going out further, I think," Satterwhite said.

The nearly 25-year presence of the Macon Mall on Eisenhower has contributed to a steady flow of new retail development.

"The mall area will continue to grow and continue to be the center of retail because of the size of the mall," Crumbley said.

On Gray Highway, a new Wal-Mart Superstore now under construction will soon greet the nearly 40,000 cars that pass a part of the road each day.

"There probably won't be much beyond (the new Wal-Mart)," Crumbley said. "Everything from Wal-Mart to town is pretty much built up."

Local developers said they consider Eisenhower, Pio Nono and Gray Highway stable retail corridors with little danger of being left in the dust by new development.

"What you don't want is retailers jumping from old shopping centers to new shopping centers," Crumbley said. "Luckily, we have not really seen that."

A 1999 survey by Fickling & Co. of 3.5 million-square-feet of retail space in Bibb County showed about 11 percent of space in area shopping centers was vacant, Crumbley said. The vacancies were not focused in any particular area.

"So far, what we're seeing in our vacancy study is there are no specific corridors or certain retail areas where anybody is suffering," he said.

In general, retail businesses provide the largest chunk of jobs in Bibb County - about 21 percent of the 89,139 positions, Nagle said.

It's a number that continues to grow as more new businesses open. Local developers fully expect Bibb to continue to grow to the county lines.

"What we've got to do is think different than Macon or Bibb County," Ramsbottom said. "We've got to think central Georgia."

The construction of new schools near Zebulon and Hartley Bridge roads will continue to fuel development in those areas, Crumbley said.

The overwhelming passage of the school sales tax referendum earlier this month is a good sign for business growth, Ramsbottom said.

"As long as the economy stays good, we're going to keep growing," Satterwhite said.

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