It appears the city’s Urban Redevelopment Agency may be letting a good opportunity pass it by.
Michael Kaufman and his father, Jim, have stated multiple times their desire to invest in downtown Brunswick. They are putting their money right in the heart of where their mouth has been.
The Kaufmans have purchased a couple of properties on Newcastle Street and in downtown. One of those is at 1612 Newcastle Street, where the businessmen renovated the top floor to be office space called The Wick, to be rented to folks who need some meeting space or a place to work, but may not need a fully operational office building all for themselves.
That venture is about 80 percent occupied, Michael Kaufman said last week.
The opportunity missed is downstairs, where the father-son team offered the URA space for the Oglethorpe Conference Center that has been in the works since the SPLOST money to build it started being collected more than a decade ago.
The roughly 12,000 square foot space is well suited to become the 10,000 square foot conference center it has been planned to be.
The Kaufmans made the pitch to the agency a few months ago. It is now the middle of June, and they have not heard a response, despite the agency expressing its interest in the project.
If the conference center would have gone into the Newcastle Street property, rather than across the street on the empty block where the old Oglethorpe Hotel once stood at the corner of Bay and Newcastle streets, the Kaufmans wanted to build a 175-unit apartment/retail development on the empty lots.
This would have provided something local economists have said downtown Brunswick needs if it is to truly to transform itself — people living in its central district. As the folks at the Reg Murphy Center for Economic and Policy Studies have noted, retail and restaurants need people to patronize them, so the best way to spur that activity is to get more people living there.
This plan accomplished that goal.
But the URA still seems more focused on building a hotel to go with the conference center. While that is not bad idea, an apartment and retail development with views of the water, built to match the historic character of the district and at a rate affordable to the middle class or college students, provides an opportunity for long-term stability and activity. Nearly 200 more residents living directly in the middle of the downtown commercial district could lead to later hours for restaurants and shops and an stronger police presence.
A hotel on the other hand would only provide temporary jolts of activity when a conference is in session or an event is in town.
It seems the URA may have things backwards. Why not build the conference center in the existing Newcastle Street building, get a new apartment building on the Oglethorpe block, then build a hotel down the road when the new life in downtown has prompted more shops, more restaurants and more activity overall.
Then, the folks staying at the hotel will have plenty of places to go, which is something a study the agency paid for suggested was needed for a hotel to be successful.
Instead, the Kaufmans appear to be moving on and said last week they have leased their open space to other parties.
We are happy to see their success and wish those businesses leasing from them all the best, but it is sad to know the URA could have finally completed the Oglethorpe Conference Center and added some new people and businesses to the downtown scene if it just would have taken advantage of the opportunity in front of them.