LaGRANGE — Glancing through brightly lit clothing racks at a LaGrange Mall department store Tuesday afternoon, Vicky McEacharn browsed for a shirt for her daughter, Kaylee, to wear on school picture day.
Normally, McEacharn, who lives in LaGrange, would have gone to Columbus or Newnan to shop, but the photographer would be at Kaylee’s school today, she said.
“We mostly make last-minute purchases in LaGrange,” she said. “There’s just not a lot of options here.”
McEacharn isn’t alone in her opinion. According to a survey the city conducted during February and March, about 60 percent of respondents said they wanted to see more clothing stores in LaGrange — an even higher percentage said they wanted more sit-down restaurants.
Both may happen soon, if the company that owns the mall has its way.
John Mulherin, a vice president of Hull Property Group, which owns the mall, met with Mayor Jim Thornton and city council members Tuesday morning to lay out a “double-down” plan to expand the languished property and attract national retailers and restrauranteurs.
Mulherin, on behalf of Hull, asked the city to create a tax allocation district, or TAD, which would freeze property tax collections for the mall at current rates. The difference between the frozen rate and the taxes the company would pay to local entities for the increases in the property’s value would instead go toward paying off the cost of the planned expansion.
It’s a gamble the city seems willing to accept. LaGrange’s Redevelopment Agency — which hadn’t met since October 2013 — unanimously approved the creation of the TAD on Tuesday morning.
Here’s how the deal, if approved, would work:
• In the first phase, a national sporting goods retailer could fill the space left by J.C. Penney in April. Additionally, a two-store retail space would be added to the corner of the property, separate from the mall, near the gas station at the corner of Lafayette Parkway and Davis Road. A national dental chain and a mobile phone company are potential tenants, according to Tom Hall, LaGrange city manager.
• In the second phase, one of two scenarios could play out: in the first possibility, a three-store retail space would be added to the mall adjacent to J.C. Penney. The spaces would be smaller and have external entrances. Additionally, spaces for five restaurants would be built in the parking lot. In the second possibility, a big-box home furnishings store would be built adjacent to J.C. Penney and four restaurants would be added to the parking lot.
• A third phase is also possible, but no major plans have been laid out, according to the redevelopment plan presented by Hull. In that phase, more stores — or possibly lodging — could be added to land behind the mall.
Before any of this can happen, the local governments — Troup County, the Board of Education and LaGrange City Council — must all sign off on the agreement to freeze their tax collection rate. From there, the proposal must be approved by the state Department of Revenue. If everything goes smoothly, the TAD could be in place by Jan. 1.
Hall said the plan offers a competitive advantage and may help attract new retailers by potentially reducing the overhead costs for them. Basically, the TAD would help Hull offer leases on retail space at a lower cost than it would otherwise be able to do.
The mall’s owners have already purchased the former Ryan’s Steakhouse property and Mulherin said demolition could begin before the end of the year. Construction on a new restaurant space could happen in the first part of 2016, he said.
Inside the mall shopping for picture-day clothes, McEacharn said she thought the proposal sounded promising.
“I think it would be great,” she said. “I’d love to spend my money here rather than having to drive to Columbus and do it. I’d like to see something like an Old Navy, or Justice, and things like that for school-aged kids. Also, I’d like to see a men’s clothing store. My husband would like that. … I’d like to see it happen.”
Tyler H. Jones is a reporter at LaGrange Daily News. He may be reached by calling 706-884-7311, ext. 2155.