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Is Armuchee becoming a destination for development?

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Two and a half decades after Crown American Co. built Mount Berry Square Mall; 20 years after the city of Rome opened the Stonebridge Golf Club off of Old Summerville Road — will it be the new Armuchee Connector and the SPLOST-funded tennis center that revive and promote development north of the city?

The $11.4 million tennis complex will be larger than either the Copeland-Cox Tennis Center in Mobile, Ala., or the Cary Tennis Park in North Carolina, the complexes most frequently mentioned as competitors for the large regional tournaments Rome hopes to lure.

The Tennis Center of Georgia at Berry College also will offer half-sized Quick Start courts for youthful beginners to the sport. You might compare them to Little League baseball fields.

Sammy Rich, the assistant manager for the city of Rome, wondered this past week if Penn.-based Crown American

might have been a little ahead of the curve when it constructed the mall.

Rich, who came to Rome in 2002 as the assistant Floyd County manager, said that one of the first things he heard then was people questioning why the mall was built so far up Martha Berry Highway.

“How far is far?” asked Rich. “I think having that Armuchee Connector open really makes that area seem much closer to the heart of downtown.”

What factors do guide economic and residential development?

Don Macke, in a paper titled “Keys to Economic Success” written for the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship, said the Great Recession was a huge wakeup call for communities across the nation.

“It reflected fundamental changes and illustrated in no uncertain terms that America had lost its advantage and must work harder now to ensure competitive edge and renewed prosperity,” wrote Macke.

Macke also maintained that economic development “is a uniquely local responsibility.”

With the Nov. 5 passage of the special purpose, local option sales tax package — by a mere 84-vote majority — residents of Rome and Floyd County narrowly accepted the responsibility of taking action locally to promote growth.

Beyond the tennis center, money was included for industrial property acquisition, an extension of the main runway at Richard B. Russell Regional Airport and more.

One need only look at the U.S. 411 corridor between Cartersville and Rome to understand that growth rarely happens on its own.

Other than the Tractor Supply and new Walmart on the Rome end and the Shaw Industries plant at the Cartersville end, virtually nothing has been built along the stretch of four-lane highway for close to three decades.

Ben Lucas, a veteran Rome commercial real estate executive, said lack of infrastructure — particularly water lines — has been a part of the reason. Another major factor is that there are a relative handful of large property owners over the span of those 20 or so miles, and they, for the most part, have been unwilling to carve up their tracts.

Developing quality of life

As Rome looks toward Armuchee, most of the property between the Oostanaula River and the 30-acre tract behind the mall where the tennis center will be constructed is owned either by the extended Berry family or Berry College.

For four years, Rome and Floyd County sought state bond assistance in jump-starting the tennis center project as an economic development measure. Each year the governor, starting with Sonny Perdue and continuing with Nathan Deal, failed to include the project in the state bond package.

Officials contend the Tennis Center of Georgia at Berry College was never about creating a huge recreation complex for local folks.

It was all about economic development.

“That’s what the city and the (Greater Rome) Chamber of Commerce promoted,” said Floyd County Commission Chairman Irwin Bagwell. “It does look like it could be an economic tool, and it will help Rome and Floyd County.”

Bagwell said his only objection to the project was that he wanted it to be self-sustaining and not need the county to pump additional funds

into the center for maintenance and operation.

“The city of Rome agreed to pick up the maintenance and operation tab, so with them agreeing to pick up any extra, I’m fine with it,” Bagwell said.

Chamber President Al Hodge said the tennis complex would make a difference.

He said the facility falls into the quality-of-life category that is so important to many prospective employers and site-selection consultants for prospective industries.

It will be some time before the Tennis Center of Georgia at Berry College is built, and bidding for the large tennis tournaments that supporters have envisioned is generally done a couple of years in advance.

Rich said the community partners who have advanced the project have held one meeting since the SPLOST was passed.

“We’re still asking a lot of questions: What do we have to check off, what decisions have to be made before we can pull the trigger?” he said. “It’s a big project. It’s a lot to get your arms around, but the good news is that we’ve done a lot of due diligence over the last four years so we’re not starting from scratch.”

Rich said a timeline is expected to be developed shortly after the first of the year. The tennis center is one of the city of Rome projects in the overall SPLOST package, which also includes projects for the county and Cave Spring.

Bagwell said SPLOST funds, once they start flowing in May 2014, would be divided between the county and cities based on the value of the projects that each government will oversee.

‘A shot in the arm’

Rich said there is a possibility that the mall could have a direct connection to the tennis center from its loop road.

“What a shot in the arm that could be for the mall — having large tennis tournaments here, having growth at the food court and additional retailers that may want to come to be near that kind of captive audience,” Rich said.

The mall has never been completely occupied, and Stonebridge Golf Club has never been a significant financial success for the city, though the course has drawn rave reviews from industry publications and spawned the development of two high-end subdivisions that add to the tax coffers of the city and county.

Hodge said he can envision a mixture of retail and office development in the vicinity of the tennis center, and he doubts

that adjacent tracts will be spun off for industrial use.

Rich said he’s not sure what type of impact the tennis center will have on the greater Armuchee community as a whole, but residential construction is already beginning to thaw out in some of the subdivisions that were essentially frozen by the recession five or six years ago.

Several new homes have gone up in recent months in the Battle Farm subdivision off Old Summerville Road.

“I think the beauty of the tennis center is that it really will be a catalyst for growth,” Rich said. “I think the tennis center has the potential to take us in a new direction and bring things that we can’t even think of yet.”