Update: $220 million riverfront development complex planned for Phenix City

Phenix City would reap untold economic benefits from a proposed $220 million riverfront development project that promises to create thousands of jobs and turn the city into a national destination, the site’s developer said Tuesday.

Plans for the “Brickyard,” an 87.4-acre plot across the Chattahoochee River from the Columbus Civic Center, include a marina, condominiums, two 13-story hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues that will “put Phenix City on the map,” developer Billy Graham said.

In discussing the plans, Graham, a former Ronnie Gilley associate, sought to dispel rumors that the site is a front for a casino initiative, and he agreed Tuesday to a gambling ban as a condition of his re-zoning request.

“It’s never even been a consideration, and absolutely there will be no gambling on the property,” Graham told the city’s planning commission after Councilman Jimmy Wetzel addressed the speculation.

“By squashing the rumors that have been out there, we feel that maybe people will put that behind them now and start looking at the positives that this project will bring,” Graham added in an interview. “We really feel that this region is a diamond in the rough.”

The property, situated off Brickyard Road, is being sold to NLP Properties LLC by Boral Brick Inc. and includes a brick plant Graham plans to renovate instead of tearing down because of its rich history. According to Graham, the Brickyard project will generate some 3,500 during the construction phase and about 1,500 permanent jobs.

“It will be one of the major developments in the southeastern United States,” he said.

The economic impact for the city would be “astronomical,” he added, in the hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars.

“This has got the potential to be a huge deal,” Wetzel said. “It’s got the potential to be a lot bigger for Phenix City than the whitewater project.”Graham, the would-be developer of the Phenixian, a planned riverfront high-rise that never came to fruition on Phenix City’s riverfront, has been eying this region for years, emboldened by the emerging whitewater rafting course.

“People are going to need a place to eat. They’re going to need a place to stay,” he said. “The Columbus side of the river is already developed, We, as developers, have a blank canvas to do what we want to do on this side of the river, so we’re real excited about that opportunity.”

The project cleared its first hurdle Tuesday evening, as planning commissioners unanimously approved a request to re-zone the brickyard from heavy manufacturing to a commercial district, with a waiver for the residential condos. City Council has the final say on re-zoning requests, but this proposal is expected to pass easily, Wetzel said.

“If anybody would rather have a brickyard there than this development somebody would have to examine them,” said J.W. Brannen, a consultant to the city’s economic development department. The Brickyard is funded entirely by private investors and, unlike the failed Phenixian, “there’s no connection to the city whatsoever except the zoning,” Brannen added.

Once the zoning is approved, Graham expects to lift the veil on the big-name investors he says are already lined up. Though Graham has sought to distance himself from Ronnie Gilley Properties — Gilley pleaded guilty last year to federal bribery and money laundering charges before Alabama’s bingo corruption trial — facets of the Brickyard project bear strong resemblance to endeavours undertaken by his former company. The Gilley group had strong ties to the country music industry, and Graham appears poised to bring similar stars in as project partners here.

“We’ll be bringing a lot of celebrity-themed venues to this development to attract people not only from this region but from around the country, and we’re bringing some pretty heavy names through,” Graham said.

“All the agreements with them are already done,” he added, “but we’re not going to go and parade their names out here to the public and then all of a sudden the City Council votes it down and the project doesn’t move forward.”

A master plan for the Brickyard reveals two riverfront hotels with restaurants, two separate restaurants, a 13-story condominium complex, a marina with dry boat storage, a boardwalk and an RV park. The site includes 3,000 feet of riverfront.

Brannen, who has long dreamed of bringing a marina to the area, said “it’s kind of pitiful” that the project has taken a “beating behind the scenes,” referring to the gambling rumors.

“It makes you sick,” he said. “There are people who just don’t want to see Phenix City do a thing.”