When the Augusta GreenJackets held their final game at Lake Olmstead Stadium during Labor Day weekend this past September, it marked nearly three decades of baseball being played at the lake.
For some diehard GreenJackets fans, saying goodbye to the much beloved Lake Olmstead Stadium was bittersweet.
And while some longtime local baseball fans may have mixed feelings about the move into South Carolina, GreenJackets president Jeff Eiseman insists this new home will ensure that the team will thrive in the Augusta area for many decades to come.
“We are proud of being in South Carolina, but we are not abandoning Georgia,” Eiseman recently told the Downtown Development Authority of Augusta. “The key for us and for this project and for the city of Augusta is figuring out, how do we meld the opportunity to transport people back to Broad Street to support the local restaurants and bars and everything else that is down there?”
There is an opportunity to have an influx of about 1,000 extra people eating, drinking and shopping in downtown Augusta before or after each game held at SRP Park in North Augusta.
“This could be a benefit to the downtown businesses that doesn’t exist right now,” Eiseman said of Augusta. “For us, we get to move closer to the heart of the CSRA into Aiken County and be a part of that community. And we will be active in that community.”
But in order for SRP Park and the Riverside Village development to be successful, Eiseman said it clearly needs the support of residents on both sides of the Savannah River.
“I’m always instilling the fact that North Augusta created the funding. They created the opportunity for it to happen,” Eiseman said, explaining that North Augusta stepped up to the plate and was willing to enter into a public-private partnership to build the ballpark.
“But we know our village itself doesn’t sustain itself by itself.”
“We know we have to have Georgia license plates coming across that river, and we need to encourage South Carolinians from Aiken County and everywhere else to come down and support the project.”
Therefore, Eiseman isn’t playing any political games with municipalities on either side of the Savannah River.
“We are a regional baseball team. We are not changing the team’s name,” Eiseman proudly said of the Augusta GreenJackets. “We get some flack from it here and there, but politically we are not bending on that. We never have.”
“People can fight with us all they want. It’s 30 years that the ball club has been the Augusta GreenJackets, and it’s a regional brand.”
Ever since Project Jackson was first announced to be built in North Augusta along the riverfront back in 2012, there has been a great deal of interest in the future of the multi-use development next to the Hammond’s Ferry neighborhood.
The estimated $200-million-plus project now known as Riverside Village is expected to include not only a state-of-the-art baseball park, but also a 180-room Crowne Plaza hotel and 6,000-square-foot conference center; about 90,000 square feet of retail shops and restaurants; approximately 280 apartment units along with additional outfield apartments and a fitness area for home and away teams; 36 residential flats; 14 single-family homes along the Greeneway in North Augusta; 125 units of senior living; and about 200,000 square feet of office space with parking decks to meet all of the development’s needs.
Just this week, a locally owned restaurant in Augusta plans to announce that it will open its second location across the river in North Augusta as part of the new development. But the Augusta restaurant owners didn’t want to comment on the new location and spoil the surprise announcement scheduled for this Friday, Oct. 20.
There is no doubt about it, the excitement over the SRP Park and Riverside Village development is contagious, Eiseman said.
“This project has been 10 years in the making,” Eiseman said, reminding people that the ballpark was originally proposed to be constructed at the former Augusta Golf and Gardens property on Reynolds Street.
Back in 2010, then-Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver was hoping that the Reynolds Street property could be redeveloped as a baseball stadium with the help of then co-owner and baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr.
However, by 2011, Copenhaver simply couldn’t get the political support he needed to build the ballpark in Augusta.
“The property is just in limbo,” Copenhaver said in 2011.
That’s when North Augusta decided to look into becoming the new home of the Augusta GreenJackets.
“When I was first approached by Jeff Eiseman and someone asked, ‘Would North Augusta be willing to consider this?’ The team was still talking about the stadium being built at the former location of the Augusta Golf and Gardens,” former Mayor Lark Jones told the Metro Spirit. “And I told Jeff, ‘I am not going to talk with you or negotiate with you until Deke Copenhaver lets me know things have changed for the city or you’ve let Augusta know that you have changed your mind.’”
The two cities are good neighbors, and Jones said he never wanted to hurt that relationship.
“I’m not going to go behind Augusta’s back and stab them in the back. That is not the kind of neighbor North Augusta wants to be,” Jones said. “We want downtown Augusta, which is several hundred yards away from North Augusta, to be very successful. And people from North Augusta frequent downtown Augusta quite regularly. We want both cities to succeed. So I wouldn’t talk about the ballpark in North Augusta until I knew the negotiations had ended in Augusta.”
When the ballpark deal fell through in Augusta, its neighbors across the river in South Carolina immediately got the ball rolling. Today, the dream of a new stadium and multi-use project in North Augusta has become a reality, Eiseman said.
“It is happening,” he enthusiastically said. “We are very excited about it, and I think a lot of people don’t always realize that where this is moving to is actually closer to downtown Augusta than where Lake Olmstead is.”
The SRP Park and Riverside Village development is a win-win for residents in both South Carolina and Georgia. “What seems to get lost sometimes in all of this is, ‘Oooh, they crossed state lines. They are going over the river. They are traitors.’ Or whatever anybody might feel,” Eiseman said. “But I think we have an opportunity to provide more impact to downtown (Augusta) than we’ve ever had in our past.”
The truth of the matter is, Augusta politics kept the ballpark from being built in Richmond County.
“We’ve seen the wheels of government on this side of the river,” Eiseman said, referring to Augusta. “However, your downtown is rocking and rolling right now, and that’s good for everybody. And as we’ve always said, a healthy downtown Augusta is great for the entire region. We are Augusta-centric. We are remaining the Augusta GreenJackets. It’s important.”
However, the baseball team also recognizes the enormous potential North Augusta has to offer the entire region, Eiseman said.
“There is something very special happening over in North Augusta,” he said. “Not only with this project, but elsewhere and throughout North Augusta as well as Aiken County. But we are seeing it throughout the entire region and our job as a baseball team is not here to be partial and say, ‘It’s North Augusta.’ It’s to bring the community together and bring both sides of the river together and make this one region. What is good for Augusta and what is good for North Augusta is good for everybody.”
Augusta Commissioner Bill Fennoy, who represents Augusta’s downtown district, said he couldn’t agree more.
He believes when the SRP Park opens next spring, members of all of the local governments including North Augusta, Aiken, Augusta, Aiken County and Columbia County should be invited to the press conference.
“North Augusta didn’t take the GreenJackets from Augusta,” Fennoy said. “North Augusta did something that is going to have an economic impact on the entire region, and we support what they are doing over there.”
The grand opening of the stadium will happen before you know it, Eiseman said. “We are on pace. We expect we will have a certificate of occupancy here sometime around the end of March,” he said. “This facility is going to be amazing.”
The first baseball game that will be held at SRP Park won’t actually be a GreenJackets game.
Two major college programs, Clemson and Georgia, will be the first teams to take the field at the new ballpark on April 10. The GreenJackets are scheduled to play their first home opener in the stadium two days later, on April 12.
He believes local fans understand that this move to North Augusta is a celebration.
“So, for all of you who have spent time at Lake Olmstead and are wondering like, ‘It’s a baseball stadium. How great could this really be?’” Eiseman said, laughing. “No. No. No. This is way more than a baseball stadium. This will be nothing like Lake Olmstead, which is what we were trying to tell the community for 10 years.”
The SRP Park will offer fans and visitors a complete experience, not just a ball game, he said.
“Lake Olmstead was built in a different time and a different place, not just for the baseball industry, but for sports and entertainment in general,” Eiseman said. “It was put in the wrong location, with poor ingress and egress, with a tight footprint and it didn’t allow any opportunities to really expand and enhance that ballpark.”
“But a lot of people are like, ‘Well, but you couldn’t even fill up Lake Olmstead, so what makes you think you are going to be more successful here?’ It’s not a chicken or the egg,” he added. “Lake Olmstead was keeping us from being able to fulfill what we wanted to do, not that the community wasn’t supporting us.”
Riverside Village with the SRP Park will be like nothing the Augusta area has ever seen or experienced before, Eiseman said.
“This is over a $200 million public-private partnership. It is almost $200 million in private sector alone for this development over here,” he said. “There is a perception out there like, ‘Oh, the taxpayers are paying for bonds for a baseball stadium. This is insane!’”
That’s simply not true, he said.
“It wasn’t dissimilar to what we were trying to propose here (in Augusta),” Eiseman explained.
In the case of the North Augusta development, the city had to get Aiken County and the school board to agree to the Tax Increment Financing for the project. Basically, that the city voted to amend the TIF district, which was created back in 1996, to repay the bonds it issued for Project Jackson.
“Yes, we used a TIF district, but the way that generally works is, we are providing the infrastructure — whether it is the hotel, the shops, the retail — that mix creates taxes and those taxes are going against the debt service on the bonds,” Eiseman explained. “So it doesn’t become a tax burden on the community.”
In addition, the GreenJackets have signed a 20-year lease at the ballpark and expects to pay approximately $500,000 a year in rent, he said.
“So this was never meant to be a burden, but this is a big, big, mixed-use project and that’s partially what has taken so long to get it done because it’s complicated,” Eiseman said.
“This isn’t a stadium in the middle of a cornfield someplace that’s like, ‘OK, we need $30 million and the state is going to put in this, and the city is going to put in this and the team is going to put in this, and let’s go build it.’ This was much bigger.”
There were a lot of moving parts that needed to come together to make the project happen, he said.
“You have a hotel that won’t commit until they know the project is going forward,” he said. “You have retail that’s saying, ‘Are you going to build this? Because we are going to open up a location here, here and here, but if this isn’t going forward, we are not going to sign on this.’ And so the challenge is when we try to pull all of this together, making sure that you have the commitments that satisfy the city to keep moving forward to release the bonds.”
Fortunately, it finally all fell into place, and the reality is an incredible new development coming to North Augusta’s riverfront that will benefit the entire region.
“We anticipate full completion, total buildout by April of 2019,” Eiseman said. “So not everything will be online and operational when we open (the ballpark) in March or April of this coming year. The hotel will be under construction and there will be a lot of construction going on.”
But as the community begins to see each element of the project completed, Eiseman believes local residents from both states will fall in love with Riverside Village.
“At the restaurant, you will be able to actually eat and look out onto the river, which is something you can’t do anywhere else in town,” he said. “Even at the Marriott (on Reynolds Street), unless you are taking your plate from one of the conference centers and going out on the Riverwalk, you are not in a public space being able to take advantage of the river with retail and restaurants. That is really the key and the magic of what is happening over here in North Augusta.”
The riverfront will finally be properly showcased to the entire community, he said.
“Water is a draw, and our waterway has been abandoned as a cultural resource to bring this community together for 100-plus years here,” he said. “This is an opportunity to bring that back.”
As North Augusta’s riverfront continues to grow and thrive, Eiseman suspects downtown Augusta will also see changes and improvements to the Riverwalk area.
“A healthy, vibrant waterfront will be good for this entire metro,” Eiseman said, comparing the riverfront to a Monopoly game board. “And I have a feeling once people see some better ways in which to take advantage of the waterfront, you will start seeing projects with more and more people wanting to be closer to Boardwalk and Park Place.”
The future is looking extremely bright for the entire Augusta area with the addition of Riverside Village and the SRP Park, Eiseman said.
“We didn’t take the approach of, ‘If you will build it, they will come,’” he said, referring to the baseball movie “Field of Dreams.” “This was a huge investment by the GreenJackets. This wasn’t a gamble because we knew that the demand was here, this market was here. We have survived for 30 years, and it hasn’t been easy at Lake Olmstead. But having the right environment to showcase our product and give people these experiences, we know that this is going to be a game-changer for baseball in this marketplace.”
Even though it took about a decade to get this project underway, Eiseman said he couldn’t be more happy with the way things have turned out.
“Obviously, the Golf and Gardens site was the place that we originally intended this project to happen. It would have been ideal in a lot of ways,” he said. “But when one door closes, another one opens.”
North Augusta’s willingness to carefully consider the proposal and the city leaders’ determination to make the new ballpark a reality literally saved the Augusta GreenJackets, Eiseman said.
“As we started having these conversations with North Augusta early on, it was becoming apparent that this was real,” Eiseman said. “And now we have secured baseball here for generations to come.”