The development of a major shopping and dining development in the Midland area of Columbus presents a number of challenges, the property’s new owners acknowledge, with the additional traffic that it will certainly generate a critical aspect of the project.
That’s why the real-estate investors who purchased the 86 acres of land at 6801 Flat Rock Road on June 6, paying $6.25 million, already are talking with Columbus Planning Department and Georgia Department of Transportation staffers to determine the best way to improve what already can be, at best, a very congested area at certain times of the day.
“It doesn’t do clients that we might have come in there with retail if the flow isn’t good. It’s just been one of those things that’s been neglected for a number of years,” said Marty Flournoy, who has partnered with Columbus businessmen Chris Wightman and Jack Wright on the development, which for now is being called Midland Downs. They are incorporated by the Georgia Secretary of State’s office as JMC Flatrock Partners LLC.
The future site of a big-box retailer, grocery store, restaurants and other neighborhood center businesses and outparcels, the property is located at the intersection of J.R. Allen Parkway (U.S. Hwy. 80) and Manchester Expressway (U.S. Hwy. 27). It is adjacent to the Gateway Road Walmart Supercenter and Billings Crossing commercial center, and not far from the Lakeside Village area with its mix of restaurants, service businesses and a large apartment complex.
Aside from the estimated population of 76,000-plus people within a five-mile radius of the site, the intersection has a steady flow of homeowners commuting to and from Harris County to the north of Columbus and Talbot County to the east.
A traffic count by the Georgia DOT shows between 21,000 and 22,000 vehicles move through the area each day just east of the development site after J.R. Allen turns into Beaver Run Road. The growing Pratt & Whitney plant and Muscogee Technology Park, a burgeoning business park that now includes BlueCross and BlueShield of Georgia, are in that direction.
On Manchester Expressway, just north of the intersection, the DOT count indicates more than 17,000 vehicles pass through the area daily. South of that location is the Milgen Road exit with its own commercial and residential presence.
And, of course, a major shopping and dining hub will undoubtedly attract people from even farther, particularly with J.R. Allen Parkway allowing them to flow to the area from Blackmon and Schomberg Roads. A traffic count just west of Schomberg shows 48,800 vehicles moving along the highway each day.
Rick Jones, Columbus’ director of planning, said the intersections near which Midland Commons is being developed are “pretty close” to reaching maximum capacity.
“That’s what we’ve got to figure out, how that site can be developed and, at the same time, make sure we don’t overload that roadway,” he said. “We’ve shared some concerns with them about traffic out there — how they would gain access to Beaver Run (Road) and if they would provide other entrances and exits to that site as well.”
Jones said it is typical for the city to require that developers who are putting new infrastructure in place to pay for improvements to ease traffic congestion and delays. For instance, when the Walmart Supercenter located on Gateway Road, there were required improvements to traffic signals and the road’s intersection with J.R. Allen Parkway.
Flournoy said his group has hired a professional traffic engineer to do a comprehensive analysis of the traffic flow in the area. It also has met with the Georgia DOT about what might be needed for turning lanes and traffic signal coordination. The investors also have offered to allow a “reliever” connection between Midland Commons and Gateway Road to alleviate some of the traffic.
“One of the plans we’re going to do is to try to initiate an improvement to the overall traffic flow out there,” Flournoy said. “As it currently exists, the city hasn’t had the money to really synchronize all the lights, and I think that’s been a concern for a lot of people. You flow through there at certain times of the day and the traffic seems to be congested. But it’s not the volume of traffic. It’s the way the lights are staged and that creates a little bit of a problem.”
Flournoy could not give a timeline on when any rezoning on the project or an appearance before Columbus Council might occur to gain approval for redevelopment of the former textile plant property that is now nearly a million square feet of concrete pad and parking lot asphalt with trees and weeds growing out of it. Completion of the traffic study is a priority, he said.
The real-estate investor said he and Wright and Wightman want to do what’s right with the project and put something in place that will be useful to area residents and problem-free for decades. That is one of the points they have tried to make certain that city officials understand in the discussions they have had with them, he said.
“I think one of the key things that Jack and I and Chris quickly pointed out is we’re not from Atlanta or 400 miles away like you might typically have on a big shopping center development,” Flournoy said. “We’re here locally and we’re going to continue to live here and be a part of that development. We’re not selling out. The first deal that I ever did I’m still part of. We stay involved and we’re hands on, so when there are issues we’re here to deal with it.”
Flournoy said he and Wightman, a commercial broker with Flournoy & Calhoun Realtor of Columbus, have worked with each other more than 20 years. He and Wright have known each other even longer, he said, since the two played Little League baseball together growing up. Aside from commercial investments, Wright also has built single-family homes in the area.
The partners’ most recent work has included acquiring the large structure in which the Stars and Strikes and Launch Trampoline entertainment venues are located on Veterans Parkway. They also renovated a former bank building at the corner of U.S. Highway 280 and 80 in Phenix City to make way for Dunkin’ Donuts and Domino’s Pizza outlets.