For quite some time, concerns have been raised regarding business growth and expansion opportunities in the Douglas area being negatively impacted due to the shortage of housing availability for skilled labor and professionals to move into the area. Expanding and new industries, as well as medical and educational institutions, are among those voicing such concerns.
At the recent quarterly meeting of the Douglas City Council, Coffee County Commission and Board of Education, local real-estate developer and businessman, Francis Lott, President of Lott Properties, proposed that the Coffee County Commission solicit Requests for Proposals (RFP) for the development of up to 80 upscale apartments and condominium units, in two construction phases, on the county-owned four-acre parcel, where the Law Enforcement Center and Voting Office are now located in downtown Douglas. This proposed initiative would provide a critical mass of housing downtown and relieve substantial pressure on the market.
Authors of the 2016 Douglas Master Plan (DMP) Lord Aeck Sargent Architects and Design Firm, have strongly endorsed the proposal. Robert (Bob) Begle, Urban Design Principal with the firm offered the following comments, "One of the central (if not the #1) goals of the DMP was to increase housing in the Downtown Core that included recommendations of converting upper floors of existing structures into urban lofts, as well as new construction. The proposed site is, unquestionably, a premier location in the central business district for development of a new influx of housing. It would absolutely be a positive development and would go a long way towards advancing vitality and economics in Downtown and would quickly bring critical housing mass to the area. Occasional conversion of second-floor space downtown into enough lofts to make an impact will take decades, but this development could provide incentives to advance those timelines."Among other benefits, Mr. Begle stated, "Downtown housing would put more shoppers on the streets in Downtown Douglas, during the day, for the benefit of existing merchants. It would also increase the life and vitality of the core in the evenings and weekends by creating a captive audience...people that will be out on the streets. It will increase weekend and evening patrons which could lead to expanded hours for dining and help push Downtown to more of a 24/7 place rather than a 9-5 weekday feel. Further, additional residents Downtown create more "eyes on the street" and improves public safety. Additional residents Downtown create a new advocacy group that can help incentivize additional housing development and lobby for associated Downtown amenities. Additionally, an upscale downtown housing would be attractive to affluent newcomers and younger residents moving into the community. Lastly, it would also put a currently underutilized property on the tax digest with substantial value" (estimated annual taxes for City and County of nearly $100,000 per year). "If developed for housing, this particular site offers several opportunities to demonstrate a good urban design that would support the overall vision of the Downtown Master Plan" and of critical importance is the ability to create the feel of an "urban neighborhood street."
Mr. Lott shared with the group, "A resurgence of downtown housing is taking place all across the country, with enormous success, some in our own area, as many citizens are increasingly moving back in-town from the suburbs and outlying areas, closer to work and local shopping. This project would jump-start the Douglas economy and spark revitalization of the downtown area which is in decline. Coffee County has been trumpeted as the 'star' of rural South Georgia for decades and this initiative will allow us to avoid further loss of momentum to our community's continued growth and economic prosperity." Mr. Lott went on to say, "I specifically want to emphasize that I will not be an investor or participant in the project, if it comes to fruition. I am simply acting as a concerned citizen and volunteer to help drive economic growth in this community which has been my lifelong passion and endeavor."
The Community Foundation of Coffee County (CFCC), chaired by Joan Zimmer, has approved funding up to $25,000 to the County to cover the cost for a housing market and feasibility study to substantiate need and define the market. Mr. Lott indicated that subsequent to the favorable recommendation for the study if the County proceeds with the project, the CFCC would be reimbursed by the County with proceeds from the sale of the land. The Downtown Development Authority (DDA) chaired by CPA Scott Moore as well as the Douglas-Coffee County Chamber of Commerce chaired by Donny Bradshaw have both endorsed the proposal for the feasibility study.