By Christina Clevland
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HILTON HEAD ISLAND — Taking a trip from Aiken to scenic Hilton Head Island, a group of Aiken County and City of Aiken leaders along with Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce and community members headed to Shelter Cove Towne Centre on Thursday to kick off the Chamber's Cool Carolina Cities Tour.
Shelter Cove is the first leg of the tour, which will take groups of around 50 people on subject-based one-day trips, said Chamber President and CEO J. David Jameson.
According to the Chamber website, the tour will also visit Hartsville and Charleston.
The Aiken Mall property is expected to undergo a similar redevelopment as the lifestyle center in Hilton Head, which also was once a struggling, enclosed mall, mall officials have previously said.
Southeastern Development Associates, of Augusta, which formerly did business as Blanchard & Calhoun Commercial Corporation, is behind both projects.
Southeastern CEO Vic Mills and Vice President Jason Long led the Aiken group on a tour of the 42-acre redevelopment in Hilton Headl, which consists of 290,000 square feet of retail space, 220 upscale apartments and a 5-acre linear park, according to information provided by the development firm.
They then had lunch with leaders from the towns of Hilton Head and Bluffton to learn more about private/public partnerships. Last year, a group with the Chamber took a similar trip to the retail and dining center.
It followed the news of Southeastern acquiring mall property in Aiken, which has seen a decline in tenants and foot traffic in recent years. Shelter Cove had a similar size and footprint as the Aiken Mall, Mills said.
"What we're going down today to see what it looks like to convert a mall into a lifestyle center," said Jameson. "I need people to visually see what the difference is, where everybody knows what to expect."
Mills has said the development team is working on nailing down its tenant list and that would help them with site plans. They will then start with elevations and Mills said he's hopeful that people will start seeing demolition at the mall by the end of the year.
It is a long process, according to Mills, noting it has been around five years since Southeastern started the project at Hilton Head, and it is in the process of building upscale apartments as a part of the redevelopment.
Jameson noted that project in Hilton Head occurred in phases and similarly in Aiken, people may see the enclosed mall come down at the same time but it may not see the retail go up at the same time.
It will be built back in phases as the market demands it, he said.
Belk will stay open during the redevelopment, Mills said, and though he did not provide names, he said other anchor tenants could drive the rest of the retail stores.
Dining also will be a part of the redevelopment in Aiken and possibly walking trails, according to Southeastern.
Representatives from Woodside Plantation, which is located near the mall property, were along on the Hilton Head Trip on Thursday. Mary Shultz, who serves on Woodside's POA board of directors, complimented Hilton Head's development's concept, citing the diversity of stores and dining options.
The architectural component, she said, is something Aiken would have to work on, but added Woodside is "looking forward" to a good redevelopment in Aiken.
She believes a few town halls or public discussions will help facilitate questions residents may have.
Hilton Head and Bluffton officials talked to participants during lunch about the importance of those discussions, where they touted the benefits of private/public partnerships.
Town of Hilton Head Island Town Manager Stephen Riley said the town once formed a stop development and now is collaborating with developers.
"But that is the beauty," he said. "A very kind of gut reaction to, 'This island is developing too fast. Developers are evil. Development is bad,' to a realization that developers can be good to developers can bad. Some are very good."
Riley said it's also about "knowing what you want," and working together. He later added that the redevelopment became something the public is "exceedingly proud of."
This is not the town's first public/private partnership, he said. Its first joint venture was with Wal-Mart on its north end. The company had an idea of how it wanted to lay out its property, and the town "had a had a bigger vision for the road network to flow through there and flow by there and interconnect with other things, and it was a joint venture that we did," Riley said. "This was far more aggressive."
At Shelter Cove, the town has invested in a park that the public uses and where other marketing events occur.
"We have used tax-incrementing financing on some other deals," Riley said. "We did not do that here. We did a land swap.
"We owned land next door, but it was underutilized and poorly situated, and this was a vision that we had as staff to try to integrate this all together and create a true gathering place, and what we came up with here was a cash investment swap of land and an investment in a park that we, today, are the owners of."
TIF may have worked, he added, but council felt in this case splitting the cost to build a park the town was going to own and benefit from worked well for them.
Riley reiterated to accomplish what the town wants, there has to be a collaboration. He and Town of Bluffton Director of Growth Management Heather Colin, who also spoke, said the same. Colin said there has to be a lot of meetings not only with the town but with the public.
She said the Town of Bluffton is working with Southeastern on redeveloping what she described as a "failing" multi-industrial park in the town, which suffered due to the downturn of the economy.
Aiken County Council member Andrew Siders said he believed Aiken residents are going to be pleased with the redevelopment of the Aiken mall. Younger residents like John Lamprecht said he enjoyed Hilton Head, as well, more specifically the entertainment aspect.
He believes that could drive millennials to the revamped center in Aiken and not to other nearby cities like Augusta or Columbia.
"I think that would be beneficial," he said.
Mayor Rick Osbon said since beginning talks with Southeastern around a year ago, he can say "on behalf of City and staff based on conversations that the relationship we've developed has continued."
"I think this project is going to be terrific," Osbon said, later thanking Jameson and the Chamber for organizing the trip. "We really walk away with a sense of what we're talking about in Aiken and a uniqueness. Just as this is unique in Hilton Head, I think the project we're going to do in Aiken is going to be really special for our residents."
This year's tour
The Cool Carolina Cities tour comes after the Aspirational Cities Tour organized by the Chamber two years ago.
In 2015, they visited Greenville, South Carolina, and Raleigh and Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Those trips were also subject-based, with Jameson saying the goal was not on the cities themselves, but ideas they have implemented.
In Greenville, he said the group learned the City has a vision from the public sector that the private sector responds to. Winston-Salem is a private sector he said the "City tries not to get in the way of," and Raleigh is a combination of those ideas.
Through Greenville and Raleigh, he said Aiken saw there could be more density in downtown living and Winston-Salem showed innovation, saying a bio-tech incubator provided ideas for the Advanced Manufacturing Collaborative planned at USC Aiken.
The AMC, he said, could drive development on the Northside of Aiken. From that trip, the City began public conversations and is working from a collaborative angle that will include the community, Jameson said.
On March 29, the Cool Carolina Cities Tour will visit Hartsville, and with a stop in Camden.