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September 19, 2010

Retail developer targets Cullman

Size, investment could hinge on wet/dry issue

Stores and restaurants such as Target, Old Navy, Olive Garden, Best Buy, Publix, Kohl’s and Red Lobster might soon be on the way to Cullman — though exactly which ones and how many could hinge on a pending wet-dry alcohol petition.

Montgomery-based development firm Jim Wilson and Associates is eyeing Cullman for a new large-scale retail project, which could create up to 600 jobs. The company has built more than a dozen large retail developments around the southeast, including the Riverchase Galleria in Birmingham, New Park Market Place in Montgomery and Redstone Gateway in Huntsville.

“The people of Cullman have a growing town in a market that’s not growing, and Cullman was on a lot of people’s radars before the economy took a turn,” developer Will Wilson, president of Jim Wilson and Associates, told The Times. “You have great transportation access, great schools, a good regional medical center and a lot of people who live outside the city limits — and even outside the county — who come to Cullman to shop because they like it.”

But, Wilson said the size of the potential development will depend on whether or not the sale of alcohol is legalized in Cullman. Some residents are currently circulating a petition to add a wet-dry referendum to the November ballot, though it has yet to be presented to the Cullman city council.

If alcohol sales were to become legal, Wilson said it would make it much easier to attract high-profile businesses to the area.

“That would help a lot, definitely,” he said. “If it did pass, that would immediately give me 10 more tenants I could call and ask to be a part of this. If liquor sales come through, that would be a great thing for growth.”

In other developments around the state, Wilson’s company has worked with restaurants such as Olive Garden, Bonefish Grill, Red Lobster and Outback Steakhouse — all of which serve alcohol. If a wet-dry vote passes, Wilson said Cullman would be in a position to attract similar establishments.

“That could really help kick start this and bring in the restaurants, as a lot of them like to come in together because they know how the factors work,” he said. “If you get about three good restaurants in, then you’re able to bring in stores around it — like an Old Navy or a Kohl’s — that really give customers a little bit of everything. We’ve had restaurants telling us that for years, that if they could sell that, they would want to come in to Cullman.”

Wilson said the project could be up to 500,000-square feet in size with a $50 million investment if the proposed referendum passes. If the city stays dry, the development would likely be around half that size.

“We believe we can pull something off without it, but things will move slower,” he said. “It’d just be tougher without it, because I’d lose some of the restaurants I’d like to have, and we might lose some big name tenants I might normally have. If we have to do it without it, I’ll probably build it with room to expand, in case that changes in four years, or 10 years down the line.”

Though the firm is serious about coming to Cullman, Wilson said there is still a lot of work to be done — most importantly property acquisition and lining up tenants.

“We’ve talked to Target, Old Navy, Kohl’s, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Bonefish Grill, Best Buy, Academy Sports and probably 50 others — but we don’t have anyone signed up, yet,” he said. “We’re still trying to get the land tied down. We’re looking at a few different places and there are a few sites we’re thinking about.”

Cullman Economic Development Agency Director Peggy Smith said Wilson’s firm is a major player in the regional development business, and it would be a boon for them to work in Cullman.

“Jim Wilson and Associates is a well-known developer with a history of constructing premier retail projects,” she said. “The proposed development for Cullman seems to identify many of the retail options that our citizens say they want locally. A major new project of this size brings in jobs and taxes — both of which we need.”

The potential sales tax revenues generated by the project for the city and county would be substantial, Cullman city council president Garlan Gudger, Jr. said.

“By getting more revenue into the budgets, everyone would prosper from this development,” he said. “This type of development is something we’ve been searching for ever since I’ve been on the council. I think we’re underdeveloped and this could be something that would continue to enhance the community.”

Considering Cullman already has a fairly strong downtown business environment, Wilson said a new retail project would likely help drive even more traffic into the area.

“The vibrant downtown there tells me the people of Cullman care, and it also tells you that we can all coexist and work together,” he said. “I think we’d help with the downtown, not compete, because we’d be bringing more people into town. The last thing we want to do is hurt anybody.”

Ron Pierce, with the Cullman Downtown Merchant’s Association, agreed that extra traffic to the city is almost always a good thing for local businesses.

“We’d obviously like to attract more businesses to downtown, but we would like for all of Cullman to be successful,” he said. “From my perspective, if we can develop downtown and do it right, folks may come and shop at other places, but they’ll also want to visit your downtown. I think expansion is good for the tax base, employment and everything.”

* Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at trentm@cullmantimes.com, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.

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