As usual, I’m late to the party. But since we’re all speculating about Selig Enterprises’ Foundry at Broad, as it’s now called, I thought I’d join the fun. It’s a harmless pastime.
We don’t have a lot to go on since all the principals have been pretty close-mouthed about what’s going on, or, I guess I should say, what’s not going on. You expect “Baghdad Bob”-like declarations from developers in this situation. But although Selig Senior Vice President Jo Ann Chitty only had about 100 words to say about it, she didn’t tell us that nothing untoward is afoot while enemy bombs are dropping in the background.
Of the statement’s 100-odd words, three are especially telling. First, she doesn’t say that there have been minor shifts in market conditions. She says that there’ve been “tremendous” changes in those conditions. Nor does she say that these “tremendous” shifts are just speed bumps in the road. She says that they present “significant” challenges to pulling the project together. And, maybe most telling, she doesn’t wrap up with a ringing expression of confident resolve. She says only that Selig will continue working to “try” to bring the project to market, working “diligently,” to be sure, but just to “try,” for all that, to pull it off.
It’s not hard to see what tremendous changes in market conditions could be causing the Seligs sleepless nights. And other people commenting here and elsewhere have suggested more than plausible candidates—a shrinking college student population, stiffer local competition in the student housing market, unfavorable shifts in the interest rate environment, etc., etc.
I have no idea whether any of this is really weighing on the Seligs. They don’t keep me in the loop about these things. But let’s suppose, just for its entertainment value, that these and who knows what other issues have them seriously rethinking their project. That makes me wonder, just off the wall, whether there’s a window here for another shot at our ill-starred Blue Heron Project of a couple of years ago.
That bird, you’ll recall, was strangled in infancy by both a stunning display of dysfunction all around and, ironically, by Selig Enterprises’ interest in the Armstrong and Dobbs property. This all came to a head in a September 12, 2011, meeting of the now defunct Economic Development Foundation. According to Blake Aued’s Athens Banner-Herald account, EDF members went into the meeting intending to hire a project manager for the Blue Heron Project, to which the Armstrong and Dobbs property would be critical. At the meeting, EDF members learned that a private developer, which turned out to be Selig Enterprises, was serious about the Armstrong and Dobbs plot. That news flash stopped Blue Heron in its tracks.
Now here we are, two years later, with Selig Enterprises still holding options on the Armstrong and Dobbs property and their project clouded in uncertainty. So failing some scrambling by somebody in a position to influence events, we might find ourselves both Blue Heron-less and with some crippled version of the Foundry at Broad even more unappetizing than the original.
I don’t have a clue whether it’s even remotely possible for Selig to pivot from a student housing market that doesn’t look so much like found money anymore to a reconfigured project that could fit into some version of Blue Heron, including research and office facilities, residences, entertainment venues, a riverwalk, etc.
Some of our commissioners see themselves as players at this level, up to running with the big dogs. While they can’t compel Selig Enterprises to do anything except meet local zoning and other land use regulations, maybe they could at least start a conversation about ways to rethink this project more along Blue Heron-ish lines.
But, you know what? Never mind. We don’t do big transformational projects like that here. Every time somebody here says “riverwalk,” Chattanooga and Greenville, SC, are mentioned in the same breath. But both of those cities were able to come together on big, transformational projects because they reached a point where it was either put their divisions and conflicts aside and pull together to save their communities—or turn out the lights. Desperation, as Samuel Johnson said about the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight, concentrates the mind wonderfully.
As Francis Taliaferro Thomas relates in her excellent A Portrait of Historic Athens & Clarke County, when other cities were bootstrapping themselves up from near death—in 1969 the federal government had declared Chattanooga, for example, the most polluted city in America—we were busy with important but incremental measures that kept our central business district from ever deteriorating to the desperate condition that Greenville was reduced to by the departure of the textile mills. A major cushion against steep decline here was the steady diet of federal pork that our angels in Congress delivered. Time and again, the federal government, that some now love to hate, saved our bacon. (Did I just say that?)
So, as you were. Big, transformational projects here? About as likely as a unicorn farm.