Mayor says city losing businesses

LAWRENCEVILLE - Snellville Mayor Jerry Oberholtzer says a shopping center going up just north of the city is luring new restaurants and retailers away from his municipality.

The first phase of the open-air shopping mall being built by Cousins Properties will open in August at the corner of Ga. Highway 124 and Webb Gin House Road.

Dubbed The Avenue Webb Gin, it will boast a roster of 70-plus national and local stores along with restaurants and offices.

Oberholtzer said businesses are going there instead of inside the city limits.

"We've seen a drop off in development activity and that is in direct response to The Avenue Webb Gin being built," Oberholtzer said.

"Because we can't have mixed drinks on Sundays, restaurants have gone up there.

"It's not only affected Snellville," he added, "but Grayson is feeling the pinch.

"It has sucked all the growth and development out of the city."

Oberholtzer, who did not provide specific examples of businesses passing over the city in favor of The Avenue Webb Gin, also blamed City Council members who opposed Sunday liquor sales.

Voters narrowly approved liquor by the drink in 2004 after it was billed as a way to lure restaurants to the city.

However, the ballot did not specify how the law would be implemented, and council members opted to use rules already in place for beer and wine, which preclude Sunday sales.

Oberholtzer has been critical of the decision ever since.

"The reason voters supported and passed liquor by the drink was to bring white-tablecloth restaurants to Snellville, and we don't have them coming because certain members of council have decided they don't want Sunday drinks," Oberholtzer said.

A developer's efforts to lure a 30-room hotel to Wisteria Square, a mixed-use development in the city center, failed because Sunday liquor sales are prohibited, the mayor said. Upscale eateries have also bypassed the project near the intersection of Ga. 124 and U.S. Highway 78, he said.

"We've lost those people," Oberholtzer said. "They are not going to come back to Snellville and it has hurt us - not only our businesses, but our city budget.

"Growth has funded a lot of things in Snellville. We've been able to control it, but they've killed it now and it's hard to get that back."

Councilman Bruce Garraway said it seems growth has slowed in Snellville, but he questioned whether the new shopping mall and lack of Sunday liquor sales are to blame.

He also noted there has been a moratorium on rezonings since January, although construction is not banned on land already zoned for commercial and office use.

"I can't imagine Snellville is flipping because of one upscale retail development," Garraway said.

"It should affect us in a positive way. More upscale retailers will look at locating at not only the Webb Gin House intersection, but also inside the city limits so they can be close to that development."

Still, Garraway said he would not be surprised if some existing retailers move to the new shopping mall.

"There will be a transition because businesses are always attracted to the new, just like the transition was from (U.S.) 78 to (Ga.) 124," he said.

When Snellville began rezoning land so big-box stores and shopping centers could open along Ga. 124 more than a decade ago, it hastened the decline of nearby U.S. 78 between Snellville and Stone Mountain as retailers and shoppers moved to the new business district.

Business leaders and the county, which has been advised to limit where shops go because it can create vacant buildings elsewhere and lead to blight, are working to revitalize that commercial corridor.

"Years ago they complained that we pushed all the retail up (Ga.) 124 and said 78 is going to die," Garraway said. "Now we are saying they are pushing all the retail up to Webb Gin House and (Ga.) 124 is going to die."

As for Sunday liquor sales, Garraway said, "I don't think one more day of liquor is going to affect the success of Snellville. On Sunday people go to church in the South and then go out to eat as a family and restaurants are always packed in Snellville.

"I can't believe retail success and success in general hinges on a mixed drink."

Atlanta-based Cousins Properties will announce in coming days the initial lineup of stores and restaurants at The Avenue Webb Gin. When finished, it will have 366,000 square feet of retail space and 19,000 square feet of offices.

A Cousins spokesman Thursday declined to comment on whether the shopping mall almost halfway between the Lawrenceville and Snellville city limits is luring development or businesses away from Snellville.

Messages left Thursday for Grayson Mayor Jim Hinkle were not returned.