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Stalled Oakland progress set to resume?

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

LEESBURG, Ga. -- The seven business partners who dreamed up the development at Oakland Plantation along the northwest Dougherty County/southwest Lee County line had visions of a new "lifestyle center" complex that was unlike anything in the region.

Their master plan, created in 2003-2004 after the Oakland Partners initially purchased more than 5,700 acres of land that had been part of a hunting plantation, called for retail outlets, restaurants, houses of worship, recreational space and homes, all within easy walking or biking distance.

Shortly before all components of the master plan fell into place, though, the economy took a dramatic downward turn, halting the momentum of the development and essentially putting Oakland on hold.

"The economy certainly has been a setback because we were right on the verge of moving forward with the project," partner Bruce Melton, the president of Oxford Construction Co., said. "The biggest disappointment I have is that if things had moved forward like they were progressing, we'd be opening this thing up about now."

The Oakland Partners -- Melton, C.H. "Red" Carr, his son, Barry Carr, and Jim Bacon, principles with SafeAire Heating and Cooling; Applied Fiber Telecommunications President John Temp Phillips III; AAA Concrete CEO Dell Bush; and Strategic Equipment and Supply Co. executive David Campbell -- envisioned an open-air development that offered a pleasing mix of residential, commercial, recreational and family opportunities.

When the Core Development group out of Sylva, N.C., decided in 2007 to invest in the Oakland property, all the pieces were in place to make the partners' vision reality.

"Core had secured a big box outlet -- Super Target -- and one or two other retailers almost as big," Lee County Chamber of Commerce Director Winston Oxford said. "They also had at least a half-dozen other retailers in place that don't have a presence in Albany. They were ready to go.

"Then the economy turned. The timing was terrible. Core is such a class act -- not one development they have in the United States is losing money -- and they had done the required due diligence before moving forward with this project. They were excited about the possibilities here."

Even before Core got involved with the development, a number of local businesses, professionals and organizations chose to locate at Oakland. SB&T, a division of Synovus Bank, the Columbus-based Hughston Clinic, the OakCrest Academy learning center, Dental Partners of Southwest Georgia, First Baptist Church of Albany, Plantation Parkway Assembly of God and Hickory Grove Storage all located along the eastern portion of the development.

Lee County built its Fire/EMS Station No. 3 at Oakland along U.S. Highway 82, and a library/conference center is currently under construction on eight acres of land at the western corner of the development.

"We're very happy with this location; it's ideal for people who live in this part of Lee County but work in Albany," OakCrest Director Anna Massey said. "We're still hoping the development continues to grow, but it's a perfect location for us."

Some in the community look at the stalled progress at Oakland as a sign that the development is destined to become stagnant. The partners say nothing could be further from the truth.

"Our primary objective during this economic downturn has been to pay down debt," Phillips said. "We've been successful in doing that, and now there are signs that commercial could start picking up. Plus, we're still adding to the residential element."

Bacon, who is serving as the Oakland Partners' point man for the development, said the group has been able to weather the economic downturn by leveraging positive movement.

"It was unfortunate that Core did not exercise its option on the property, but many people are telling us we're fortunate that the project stopped when it did," Bacon said. "There were no major projects under construction that had to be stopped. And we were fortunate enough to be in financial shape to weather the sour economy.

"Now the county is building the library, Albany Tractor Co. will be building here soon, and we're actually expanding some of our residential developments. We're doing well with the Quail Valley and Quail Chase properties -- we're about to start a Phase III with Quail Valley -- and there are six houses currently under construction. One thing you hear developers talk about is how important rooftops are, so we're even stronger in that respect."

Another plus the partners can now show potential developers is forward movement on important traffic projects. The planned Forrester Parkway (east-west) Connector and Westover Road Extension will both open traffic directly to the Oakland development.

"Within a year to 15 months, the Westover Extension will be in place," Oxford said. "That will connect (commercial hotbed) Ledo Road to Fussell Road, which ties in to Oakland. And the Forrester Connector will connect two busy corridors -- U.S. 19 and U.S. 82 -- through Oakland."

Those are the kinds of improvements that developers long for, according to Webb Properties owner William Hancock, who is listing the Oakland property.

"Oakland is a great piece of property at a great location," he said. "The demographic and traffic patterns that support a development like this are in place. It's just that everyone's scaled their plans back during this economic meltdown. That's put us two or three years behind.

"But as recently as six months ago, I had a conversation with Target and I had an opportunity to show them the plans for the east-west connector and talk with them about some of the other improvements being made. They're impressed, and they're interested in the energy (the plans) will generate."

Core remains in the picture as well.

"(Former county administrator) Alan Ours and I visited Core's offices in North Carolina a little over a year ago to let them know we were still interested in them," Lee County Commission Chairman Ed Duffy said. "We assured them the infrastructure is in place to support development and told them about the road projects that are going to have a positive impact on Oakland.

"I can't say whether they have plans to come back here, but I think they're still interested in that 82 corridor. I really think if an opportunity presented itself, they'd come here tomorrow."

Until then, the Oakland Partners remain vigilant. It's obvious they still believe in the development.

"I had a recent conversation with a big developer out of Birmingham who's interested in building multifamily apartments (at Oakland)," Hancock said. "We're trying to address the county's impact fees, see if there's anything we can do there, but I believe this is going to happen. There are a lot of possibilities here."

Everyone agrees that the old axiom applies: It's the economy.

"If we could just get one good thing to happen for us," Melton said. "None of the metrics have changed, but we need something to happen -- at the Marine base, a new industry -- that would create some jobs.

"We still believe in this development. It's still a great piece of property at a great location. Nothing's changed about that."