Officials announce plans for 643-acre development off Interstate 65

Published 2:49 am Wednesday, May 24, 2006

By By Adam Prestridge
The newly announced Rivercane development off Interstate 65 in Atmore was talked about in whispers prior to yesterday's official announcement.
Now officials are shouting from the rooftops in hopes of attracting retail developers to the 643-acre site.
"For many years to come, the initial impression of the City of Atmore will be generated once people exit I-65 here at Rivercane," Atmore Mayor Howard Shell said. "We want that impression to be one of a progressive and first-class city."
The Rivercane development is a multiphase project that will hopefully produce more income producing jobs to the City of Atmore and jobs for residents of Atmore and surrounding areas. Shell hopes the Rivercane property will increase the "economic development factors for Atmore," since Interstate 65 is such a viable part of the city.
Extensive planning, which began in early February by officials with the City of Atmore and members of the Atmore Industrial Development Board, was required for Phase 1 of the project.
"Phase 1 has been the most difficult because in it we have to get all of the Department of Transportation permits because we're altering roads and highways," Project Manager Jim Corman said. "We also had to alter our wetland mitigation plan with the Army Corps of Engineers. And then when we're including so many common areas; lakes, parks, shoulders, a lot of one-time things that you won't necessarily have, certainly to that extent in later phases. The planning and permitting of Phase 1 has been substantially longer than any other subsequent phases will be."
Goodwin, Mills and Caywood has been hired as the engineering firm for the Rivercane development. Phase 1 of the project will consist of about 60 acres. Of the acreage, 46 will be used for developing and the remaining 12 will be used for common areas including lakes with pedestrian pathways, a gazebo and parks.
Construction of various infrastructures of Phase 1 is slated to begin in mid-June. The City of Atmore has fronted $3.6 million for the construction of roads, utilities and all common areas, not including the $3 million spent for the initial cost property. Of that, $290,000 has been allotted for signage and $890,000 for landscaping. The balance will pay for streets and utilities, Corman said.
"I think that part of what we are trying to do with Rivercane is to create an image that is No. 1, very attractive and No. 2, very progressive," Corman said. "That is why we want to use extensive landscaping, why we wanted water features and why we wanted all of the public and common areas, to create a kind of beauty. That is why we are requiring all underground utilities, roadways to be all curbed and guttered and mandating that all traffic ingress and egress into Hwy. 21 come through major intersections. What we are trying to do is to present an organized, progressive, well-planned development because essentially, our image as a community is going to be created when people pull off the interstate and we want that to be very positive."
During construction of Phase 1, contractors will be moving 50,000 cubic yards of dirt off the site and bringing in another 13,000 cubic yards.
"When you're dealing with some of the national franchises they're used to seeing an undeveloped piece of property," Corman said. "But I think once we start pushing dirt out there, it will generate a lot more excitement."
Phase 1, which will consist of primarily retail, is expected to be complete by the first week of September.
Although the City of Atmore is taking a huge financial risk with Rivercane, Corman believes it's a risk worth taking.
"I think that any time you embark on a project of this size there are risks," he said. "I think that we have been able to mitigate that risk substantially by the fact that we have retail. The really exciting part about this is we believe we can generate enough value from the retail and the commercial property to pay for the entire thing. And by taking it in stages, we also mitigate the risk."
That risk has already paid off for the city.
Industrial Development Board Chairman Richard Maxwell also announced Monday the sale of the first three parcels of property in Phase 1.
"Our purpose here today is at least two-fold," Maxwell said Monday. "One, obviously is to announce the opening of Rivercane and the other, which we are equally excited about, is to announce the sale of property. Some property has been sold and construction will start in the next few months."
Locally owned Diamond Oil purchased the first piece of property for construction of a state-of-the-art service station, which will also include a food establishment.
"Diamond has for years been a supporter and contributor to our community," Maxwell said.
Vision Hospitality of Dalton, Ga. purchased the second two parcels of land for construction of two hotels, a Comfort Suites and a Hampton Inn.
"This is a great start to Rivercane and what is amazing about it is that it's before the marketing is fully in place and before the brokers have begun their aggressive selling campaign," Maxwell said.
As owner and developer of the property, the City of Atmore will reap the benefits of newly generated tax dollars created by all the construction and operation of businesses located in Rivercane.
"The other thing that, long term, is so beneficial to the city is the increased tax base," Corman said. "The Comfort Suites will generate about $13,000 per month additional revenue to the city in the form of lodging taxes. Then you've got property taxes as well. Long term, the greatest contribution to the city is not the sale of the property; it's the increased tax base."
In addition, the city will provide gas, water and sewer services.
Saad and Vallas Realty Group of Mobile and John Stanley &Associates of Montgomery have been hired as the listing brokers responsible for the sale of all non-industrial property within Rivercane.
"What we're concentrating on initially is what I call traditional interstate retail, motels, full-service restaurants, fast food restaurants and gas stations," Corman said. "I think that No. 1, that is the easiest to build because it's along the highway, No. 2, we have had 40 years of pin up demand and No. 3, it's where you can get your premium dollars to help fund the project. I think for all of those reasons, we are going to go after traditional interstate retail in our early stages of marketing. I think that then we will begin to aggressively market this site as an industrial site."
Phase 2 of Rivercane is tentatively scheduled to begin the first week of September and be completed by the end of 2006. It could be completed as early as Thanksgiving, weather permitting.
"We have already started some preliminary discussions about what property to include in Phase 2, but we won't start putting together budgets and finalizing all of that until later," Corman said. "We have been waiting until the kickoff event and until we have some time to market the property. We have intentionally been restricting marketing because we have not been public."
Phase 2 will include some expansion of retail on the southwest side of Rivercane and gain access to the first industrial sites on the southeast.
Phase 3, which is intended for mostly industrial prospects, is scheduled to begin in January 2007 and be completed in April 2007 and will include the north property across I-65.
Officials believe having industrial sites available will make Rivercane that much more attractive to developers.
"When we built the industrial park here in town almost 40 years ago, its primary asset was its location along the railroad," Corman said. "In today's economy, you need to be along the interstate. I think that this particular location along the interstate allows for us to compete for industrial prospects like we have not been able to do for 10-15 years. I think once you get the traditional interstate retail, industrial and the potential destination resort by the Poarch Creek Indians you are going to create all sorts of jobs. Then the demand for traditional retail for shopping come and then you have to have a place for all of those people to live."
Marshall Rogers, executive director of the Escambia County Industrial Development Board, and Wiley Blankenship, with Coastal Gateway Economic Development Authority, will serve as primary industrial recruiters.
Planning for subsequent phases is expected to take 10 weeks.
"You've got a planning stage that takes about 16-18 weeks, depending on the difficulties and the amount of permits and issues that you have to deal with, which is longer than the actual construction," Corman said. "At some point, we will be planning a stage, constructing a stage and marketing a previous stage. We will actually have all three functions going on. It will all be happening at the same time. By the time we get to the fall, it's going to be fun."
Corman estimates 150-160 acres of the 643 acres included in Rivercane will be included in Phases 1, 2 and 3.
"Phase 3 is not the end, it's just the beginning," he said. "I told the mayor that I do not expect a bulldozer to leave this site for five years. I want one phase to end and another to begin, but that depends on what kind of demand there is for the property."

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