ATLANTIC BEACH -- A Charlotte, N.C., developer plans to start construction in a month on a small condominium project in Atlantic Beach that will be the historically black town's first redevelopment in decades.
The project, at 400 S. 31st St., will build retail on the bottom and six condos on the top - small by development standards, but the ripples could be huge for a town that has struggled to attract significant development for years.
Town officials have spent a year developing a master plan for the four-block community, and they're ready to see construction start and demolition of derelict structures happen. They want to create a vibrant Main Street with retail, nightclubs and a livable, walkable town.
"With a town that has been financially challenged for over 40 years, development is the answer. It's the only answer if we are to maintain and develop to look like our neighbors to the north and south of us," said Irene Armstrong, the town's mayor.
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Property has been bought in Atlantic Beach in the last couple years, and developers have talked about projects, but many have been waiting for someone to make the first move.
The Charlotte developer, Susan Anthony of Choice One Properties, wants to be that person. She remembers visiting Atlantic Beach as a child when the black beach community was a vibrant tourist town.
When she returned to the town and saw its current condition, "my heart would kind of drop," she said.
"Everybody's waiting for the first person. Someone's got to be first, and I love setting an example," Anthony said.
Anthony and her husband renovate distressed properties to sell or rent out in the Charlotte area.
This will be her first development project.
Town officials welcome the change.
Their master plan calls for a walkable shopping community along the main streets with living space above.
They want a village feel and lower-density oceanfront development that won't create a wall effect, leaving the ocean view open at the end of the main streets.
They've also set 16 properties in the town for demolition, said Marcia Conner, town manager.
Charles Washington, director of finance at La Casa Real Estate Development, said a condo market glut on the Grand Strand has stalled his plans for new building.
"We're waiting out the market. There are a lot of condos on the market, and with everything going on in the financial world, we see delays with larger developers being able to move forward," he said.
He said it would be at least 24 to 36 months before they moved on plans to build.
Another oceanfront property owner, Matt Gadams with Atlantic Beach Oceanfront LLC, said he couldn't comment on his company's plans for the land, but he did say he thinks Atlantic Beach is a great investment.
Property owner David O'Connell is looking to sell his two oceanfront lots.
But smaller developers, like Anthony and Louis Wilson of Raleigh, N.C., are ready to move forward.
Wilson is preparing to buy more property in the town and wants to bring a mix of condos and townhomes to the property he owns.
"I think that's great that she's starting because we're going to follow suit right behind her," he said.
Wilson is using the same architect as Anthony and both expect to do similar type projects.
Anthony said she's not sure if any retail would immediately go in once her project is built, but she thinks it will be needed and wants to be ready when that day comes.
"I believe that mixed use property is the future," she said.
Anthony's lot is already zoned for the mixed use project she plans to build.
She needs to submit official plans to the town, but the zoning is already set. She wants to get the land cleared of the derelict home now on the lot this month.
She expects that the two bedroom condos will be second homes or permanent homes with gated parking, oceanviews, large storage space, elevators, a pool and Jacuzzi. The condos start at $325,000.
Armstrong said developing the town is necessary for its survival, but preserving its heritage is also key.
The town's master plan was designed to reflect the town's heritage as a recreation haven for black people in the time of segregation, and its uniqueness as one of only two black-owned and black-governed oceanfront towns on the East Coast today.
Since desegregation, the town has struggled to reinvent itself and attract development.
Atlantic Beach hotel owner, 89-year-old Thaxton Dixon, built the Riviera Motor Lodge in 1969. Not long after that, he watched the town start to struggle and has been waiting for significant redevelopment ever since.
Once he sees signs of concrete being poured and construction trucks in the town, he'll put money into renovating his hotel, but not before.
"I want to see progress," he said. "As soon as they start, I start."