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When the Athens-Clarke County Commission voted last February to allocate $15,000 toward an economic study for a proposed river district, they had no idea one of the project’s key properties was being sold out from under them.

But that may not have been the case for Mayor Nancy Denson. Denson now says she knew the Armstrong & Dobbs property was the subject of negotiations with a developer “probably a year ago,” when she was invited to meet with representatives from Selig Enterprises, which now has the property under contract and plans to build a 200,000-square-foot mixed-use complex that would be anchored by a Walmart supercenter.

“I was invited to meet with them to see some new plans,” Denson says. “And at the time, they told me to keep the plans confidential.”

Denson says she didn’t share the information about the Armstrong & Dobbs property prior to the Feb. 1 vote that allocated $15,000 to the Athens-Clarke County Economic Development Foundation for the economic feasibility study because she wasn’t aware of what the study would include, and because it was still early in her tenure as mayor.

“It was a bigger and broader question and I didn’t know how it would affect the river district,” she says.

After the February vote, the EDF contracted with the Sandy Springs-based Bleakly Advisory Group to undertake the feasibility study. But Ken Bleakly, president of the real estate advising firm, says there was no direction from either the EDF or the ACC government for the firm to avoid the Armstrong & Dobbs property in its calculations.

In fact, says Bleakly, the property made a good starting point because it still looked like it was for sale. “We picked the Armstrong site because of the location and [because] it was on the market,” says Bleakly, adding that the river district plan didn’t need the property to be successful. Rather, “phase one” of a river district project could start anywhere in a swath of land between Foundry Street and the Oconee River. “You want to concentrate the early phase in one area… Our whole point was you need to concentrate the development. So we said, ‘Let’s go with [Armstrong & Dobbs].'”

In fact, plans to develop the Armstrong & Dobbs property were underway even before the EDF unveiled its “Project Blue Heron,” the conceptual plan to attract high-tech employers to the river area, in late 2010. Realtors sent out informational packets about the property to potential buyers in late 2009—one year after the home building supply company closed—with the University of Georgia’s Real Estate Foundation among several to bid on it. And while the Foundation’s bid wasn’t accepted, its president, Eric Orbock, kept tabs on the property’s status as late as March of 2011, when he reported to Selig Enterprises Vice President Jo Ann Chitty—his predecessor as head of the Real Estate Foundation—that the property would soon be under contract.

“We were talking about some other stuff and the conversation turned to Armstrong & Dobbs,” Orbock wrote in a Mar. 16, 2011 email to Chitty. “[Realtor Jamie Boswell] thinks they will have the property under contract in 7–10 days. He didn’t identify the buyer.” Orbock now denies having known at the time that the buyer was Selig, and wouldn’t comment any further on the purpose of the email.

Chitty moved to Selig in 2005 after leading the Foundation through several large construction projects, including the construction of the East Campus residence and dining halls. Orbock came to the Real Estate Foundation in 2002, then succeeded Chitty as interim president before being named president. The Mar. 16 email was one of several succinct messages sent between Orbock and his former boss between the spring and fall of 2011, as Chitty made several trips to Athens.

Matt Forshee, former president of the Economic Development Foundation, says the Armstrong & Dobbs property was originally part of the area the EDF considered for the river district plan. But an initial offer to option the property for purchase was rejected, he says.

“Because it was for sale, it was a major piece of what we were looking at,” says Forshee, who left the EDF last November. “Our goal overall was to look at ways to create jobs… but when we moved into looking at options, we looked into optioning Armstrong & Dobbs—but it was never accepted.”

At first, he says, the property owners said they wanted to look at other options on the table. “They spent a few more months looking at options, and that’s when the offer came in from [Selig].”

And even when the EDF learned of the plans for the property, Forshee says it was months before the details came out. “We were never privy to what was going on—the agent didn’t release anything to us,” he recalls. “He said it was a mixed-use project.”

Bleakly says the Armstrong & Dobbs property’s potential lies not only in its suitability for mixed-use development, but also its proximity to UGA. The Blue Heron plan envisioned a mixture of entertainment, museum, office and retail spaces, targeting employers who could take advantage of being across the street from the university.

“That whole area has tremendous potential,” he maintains, noting that in many college towns, a “research park” is built miles away from the school. “This was the opportunity to have something right adjacent to a university area, and we think this was a really unique aspect of the area… The trend is trying to replicate what we have.”

Boswell, the Realtor brokering the Armstrong & Dobbs sale, confirms the property has been under contract since last spring—although the title has not changed hands, according to county records. Boswell would not confirm, citing client confidentiality, whether the sale contract is contingent upon county approval of Selig’s proposed development.

Forshee, who is now president and CEO of the Fayette County Development Authority, says downtown Athens has a lot of potential, with the greatest benefits coming from tax revenues for industrial uses and office buildings, rather than retail and residences. Although, he notes, retail does produce sales tax revenue.

But, much of downtown’s potential can only be realized by working together, according to Forshee. “Athens is a town that needs a coalition,” he says, citing various economic and social foundations and groups that all have similar missions—whether they realize it or not. “I think [many] would agree that we have a lot of viewpoints in Athens—but everyone can agree that creating jobs is a priority. It makes it harder to do when you’re not on the same page.”