More than 25 years ago, Augusta had such grand plans for the 17-acre property along the Savannah River on Reynolds Street now referred to by most locals as “the old Georgia Golf Hall of Fame” site.
When the Golf Hall of Fame was first created by the Georgia General Assembly back in 1982, the project was believed to have the ability to transform Augusta into the “Disney World of golf.”
After purchasing the property in 1987, the original vision was to build a 55,000-square-foot hall of fame building and rotunda in downtown Augusta along Reynolds Street that could potentially attract about 330,000 visitors each year and forever preserve the history of golf across the state.
But over the years, the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame board managed to spend more than $13 million in state and local funding, but never actually built much of anything.
The board constructed a long, stately serpentine brick wall that stretched along the property, separating the public from the site. Then, the board spent more money creating a botanical garden featuring six bronze statues of legendary golfers, only to let the gardens eventually die and the statues, which cost sponsors between $100,000 to $250,000 each, be relocated to the Augusta Museum of History and Augusta Regional Airport.
Of the $13 million in state and local funding given to the project, $6 million came from the city’s Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) and $1 million was provided by the Augusta Neighborhood Improvement Corporation.
Private contributions were estimated to be roughly around $15 million.
However, the project could simply never get off the ground.
“The Augusta Golf & Gardens has the feel of a golf course combined with the the elegance of a first-rate museum,” Dianne Swain, then the marketing and special event manager of the Augusta Golf & Gardens, told the Metro Spirit back in 2001. “Being here feels like being in another world. It’s basically an 8-acre garden with its own lake and an 18-foot waterfall. It’s unbelievably gorgeous.”
Prior to the garden’s grand opening, a landscape architect had already planted more than 300 trees and thousands of flowers at the site. But by 2003, the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame board was back before the city asking for an additional $6 million in SPLOST monies to the utter shock of several Augusta commissioners.
The bad news didn’t stop there.
The original proposal of the 55,000-square-foot Georgia Golf Hall of Fame building, which called for, among other things, multiple conference rooms, a restaurant and an IMAX theater, had shrunk to 6,000 square feet or less — roughly one-tenth its original size.
Many city leaders were outraged.
Specifically, former Augusta Commissioner Ulmer Bridges balked at the request.
He told board members that he served on the commission when the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame got its first, and ostensibly last, $6 million share of the sales tax pie.
“They promised us the $6 million we were giving them would be all they’d ever need. If we would just put that on the sales tax, they wouldn’t come to us for money anymore,” Bridges told his colleagues back in 2003. “So I was expecting them to stick by their word, because we’ve got other things to do as well. And now here they are, coming again and asking for more money for the Golf Hall of Fame. That was supposed to be a tourist attraction. You know, make money, stand on its own. Obviously, it’s not.”
But, at that time, then-Augusta Mayor Bob Young said he believed the project merited completion.
“As much as I don’t think we ought to be in the business of building tourist attractions and subsidizing everybody’s good idea, this thing has just languished so long,” Young said in 2003. “The point is, we need to get it finished, we need to complete it, and if we’ve got to bite our lip and do it, then it’s probably the prudent thing to do in the big picture.”
But Young warned the Golf Hall of Fame board that he wouldn’t want to see the project’s organizers back with open hands again.
“If we give them $6 million, they will raise $3 million in the private sector for an endowment for operation and maintenance for the project so that they will not have to come back to us for some operating subsidy,” Young said in 2003. “It needs to be self-supporting and certainly we don’t want to build something and see it close a year later because it doesn’t have any source of income to operate it.”
The Georgia Golf Hall of Fame and the Augusta Golf & Gardens, combined, were envisioned as a $30 million project, but the city didn’t bite.
Commissioners rejected the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame board’s request for an additional $6 million in SPLOST because the city was facing nearly $90 million worth of infrastructure and drainage problems that were deemed a much higher priority.
That left the Golf Hall of Fame board turning to the state for financial help, which didn’t sit well with then-Gov. Sonny Perdue.
While the Georgia Legislature originally provided the project $6 million to help purchase the land on Reynolds Street and build the botanical gardens, the state also provided $58,000 to $85,000 for almost 10 years for the Augusta Golf & Gardens’ operating expenses.
But the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame board insisted that such funding barely paid the water bill for the gardens.
By 2007, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that a state audit raised concerns about how some of the money was being spent, citing “meals, bottles of wine and, in one case, a $60 massage for a hall employee.”
As a result, Perdue vetoed the annual funding for the facility and the Augusta Golf & Gardens had no choice but to officially closed its doors in 2007.
The move left egg on the faces of long-time politicians who had been staunch supporters of the project.
“We’re not going to build any more amusement parks, we’re not getting into any museum business right now,” then state Rep. Ben Harbin told The Atlanta Journal- Constitution. “We’re going to focus on core missions. You will not see us bring up another Hall of Fame under my watch that is government supported because it’s not fair to the taxpayers.”
But, by 2010, then-Georgia Sen. Hardie Davis made a bold request to the state.
Davis asked the state legislators to support giving the city of Augusta the 17-acre Golf Hall of Fame property for $1, even though taxpayers still owed $2.85 million in debt service on the land.
“It’s an eyesore,” Sen. Hardie Davis told the Atlanta paper in 2010. “It’s also a beautiful piece of property, and we’re hoping something can be done with it.”
Of course, many Augustans will remember that around the same time, then Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver was hoping that the Reynolds Street property could re-developed as a baseball stadium for the Augusta GreenJackets with the help of the team’s co-owner and baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr.
While the Georgia Legislature and city officials were debating over what to do with the Reynolds Street property, former Metro Spirit reporter Robert Long ventured over to the former Georgia Golf Hall of Fame site in 2011.
What he found was jaw dropping: A vacant, overgrown piece of property that some local homeless people in downtown Augusta had decided to claim as their own.
Back in 2011, Long was shocked to find the bathrooms at the park still had flushing toilets and running sinks even though the gardens hadn’t been opened since 2007.
The property was marred by beer bottles, dirty blankets, clothes, toothbrushes, razors and empty bottles of vodka.
When asked about the state of the property back in 2011, Copenhaver acknowledged, “The property is just in limbo.”
Just when there appeared to be no light at the end of the tunnel for the former Georgia Golf Hall of Fame property, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia entered the picture in 2012.
The General Assembly approved transferring the 17-acre site to the University System of Georgia because the then-Georgia Health Sciences University expressed interest in using the property to expand its campus following its merger with then-Augusta State University.
All of a sudden, the entire town was buzzing about the potential of having a portion of the university’s college campus in downtown Augusta along the Savannah River.
Then-Medical College of Georgia President Ricardo Azziz even publicly discussed the possibility of using the vacant Georgia Golf Hall of Fame site as a biotech park.
It was music to many local downtown business owners, including Coco Rubio, the co-owner of The Soul Bar and Sky City.
Rubio believes it would be a major “game changer.”
“I really do think that university holds the key to the future of downtown Augusta,” Rubio recently told the Metro Spirit, adding he was encouraged to hear that Augusta University is interested in developing the former Augusta Golf and Gardens property along the Savannah River. “I see the potential there with (Augusta University) having college students possibly taking classes downtown, living downtown and having a presence downtown. I think that will be a big boost and I can’t wait to see that happen.”
Augusta University has the potential of being a positive influence on downtown Augusta, much like Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) has transformed downtown Savannah, he said.
“That’s the kind of thing that we need to see in Augusta,” Rubio said.
So, the big question that now remains is: What exactly does Augusta University plan to do with the property?
In late June, university officials announced plans to redevelop the botanical garden section of the former Georgia Golf Hall of Fame property into a “grassy field that could be used for everything from intramural sports to alumni events,” Jack Evans, Augusta University’s vice president of communications and marketing told The Augusta Chronicle.
But when the Metro Spirit asked for further details about the university’s plans for the property, the answer was much vaguer.
“At this time, Augusta University is performing site work and soil remediation at the riverfront property,” said Jennifer Smith, Augusta University’s vice president of planning, design and construction. “While no specific events are planned for the site long term, the work going on now is prepping the site for possible future development. Work is expected to be complete in the next several months.”
As of right now, Smith said there is no specific timeline for future development of the property.
“There are no long-term plans for the property, but Augusta University is confident the property will be an important part of the university’s future growth,” Smith said. “Augusta University hopes the land can be developed at some point for the benefit of the university and the city of Augusta.”
“The comprehensive soil remediation is occurring at the subsurface level and is good stewardship of the property on our part,” Smith said. “This is an intermediate step in prepping the land for its highest and best use.”
Camille Price, executive director of Augusta Tomorrow, believes the former Georgia Golf Hall of Fame property shows great promise in the hands of Augusta University.
“It is an amazing piece of property that is right on the river, so what needs to happen there has to be well thought out and really help the economic development of, not only Augusta University, but of Augusta,” Price said. “And really, it will be a wonderful opportunity for the whole state. It is not just Augusta’s opportunity, it is for the whole state because, of course, Augusta University is a state university.”
Ironically, Augusta Tomorrow was incorporated in 1982, the same year the Golf Hall of Fame was originally created by the Georgia General Assembly.
Since that time, Augusta Tomorrow has developed public-private partnerships with the city of Augusta that has led to several major accomplishments in the downtown area including the development of the Augusta Riverwalk, the Augusta Common and the Augusta Riverfront Center, which includes the Riverfront Hotel and Convention Center.
As a result of Augusta Tomorrow’s commitment to the downtown area, Price said the group has seen many changes to the former Georgia Golf Hall of Fame property over the past few decades.
“If the university begins by hosting intramural sports events at the site, it will be a great start to bringing vitality back to that end of Reynolds Street,” Price said. “I do believe that they are going to be starting some of their sporting events on the Golf Hall of Fame property this fall. Therefore, I think we will see a lot more activity by the students coming back and forth between the Golf Hall of Fame property and Augusta University and coming downtown and visiting the restaurants and the shops that we have. So we are really excited that Augusta University is using that property that hasn’t been in use for quite a few years.”
Margaret Woodard, executive director of Downtown Development Authority of Augusta, said she is eager to assist the university in any way to help promote the development of the former Georgia Golf Hall of Fame property.
“Right now, I believe Augusta University is tweaking its master plan,” Woodard said. “They are looking at everything from the gateways to how do you connect with downtown to the impact of when the new dorms will open on 15th Street. So it is an exciting time and we certainly want to work and help assist them when they do decide to develop the Reynolds Street property as well.”
Woodard believes the addition of more college students and campus sites in the downtown area could transform the city.
“It would be exactly what happened in Savannah with SCAD,” Woodard said, agreeing with Rubio. “The same is true with downtown Charleston. The university has made a huge impact on Charleston and Savannah is what it is today because of SCAD. So having Augusta University in the downtown area will be a huge boom for us.”
Whether it is something as small as intramural sports to something as massive as a biotech park, Woodard believes such development will bring more youth and energy to the downtown area.
“I think they fact that they are going to use the property for intramural sports is at least bringing a vitality to a dormant piece of property. It brings foot traffic and it provides a use and that is a use that’s much needed,” Woodard said. “So, it has always been our hope that the university will develop that Reynolds Street property and we have always wanted more of a university presence in the downtown core.”
But such improvements are made one step at a time, Woodard said.
“The Georgia Golf Hall of Fame property has been overgrown and dormant for how many years now?” Woodard asked. “Number one, just the fact that it is cleaned up is great for downtown. And, number two, the fact that there is an outdoor use that is going to increase foot traffic and bring a vibrancy to that end of Reynolds Street is incredible. So we really look forward to working and helping the university further connect with downtown in the future. It will be tremendous for downtown Augusta.”