When Forbes Magazine published an article earlier this year called, “How Augusta, Georgia, Is Becoming A Model For Tech Innovation In Small Cities,” Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis wasn’t surprised.
But Augusta’s progress didn’t happen overnight or by accident, he said.
The Garden City is growing because the private sector is investing in Augusta’s renaissance and the local government is determined to help facilitate that growth, Davis said.
“We have talked for the last 25 years about the potential of Augusta. People have been just very adept at saying, ‘Our city has so much potential.’ But I think we have moved beyond this notion of potential to really people see the opportunities that exist in our city,” Davis said, sitting on the rooftop of the Metro Market on Broad Street overlooking the Augusta Common. “We have transcended our historical economies of medicine, manufacturing and military. We are quickly stepping into an economy of innovation and technology.”
Just last month, Augusta celebrated the groundbreaking of the $50 million Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center on Reynolds Street which is expected to open by July 2018.
Late last year, a team of young “action leaders” and business owners including former Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver, John Cates, Virginia Claussen, Tom Patterson, George Claussen and Tommy Wafford announced a new downtown development called the Augusta Innovation Zone.
This is the project that caught the eye of a columnist from Forbes Magazine in April.
The Augusta Innovation Zone, otherwise known as the AIZ, is not about just developing more office space and new downtown apartments in the historic Woolworth Department Store and the Johnson Building located on the corners of Eighth and Broad streets.
It is about creating a culture and community like none other in the downtown area that will appeal to the millennial generation.
It’s about an environment that replaces isolating cubicles with open-office workspaces that are located just seconds from retail shops, high-end lofts and even a rooftop bar.
“When you think about innovation and technology, that takes our community to another realm from the standpoint of all I need is a smart device and I can make millions,” Davis said. “I cannot only make millions, but I can employ people, I can create jobs and all I need is a smart device. I don’t need 100,000 square feet of space. I just need a smart device, a park bench and I create these things. That’s the Augusta that I see moving forward.”
But the growth in the downtown area doesn’t stop there.
Two new hotels are currently under construction in the downtown area: The Hyatt House on the upper end of Broad Street and a new 125-room hotel on Ninth and Reynolds streets being constructed by Augusta Riverfront, LLC.
“We know that Augusta and downtown will continue to grow, but what I am extremely excited about is the amount of private-sector investment,” Davis said.
“If you take the previous two decades, most of the buildings that were built in downtown, they were public buildings. Whether it was the judicial center, the library or the renovations to the municipal building, our skyline has historically stayed the same. If you take a picture of the 1996 skyline and you juxtapose a photo of the 2016 skyline, they are effectively the same. We’ve had a few things that happened below the skyline, but now we are having conversations about changing the skyline of Augusta. That’s exciting and it is going to happen because of the private sector, which is working in partnership with the public sector.”
In addition to this increase in private development, the Augusta Commission recently endorsed the Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau’s “Destination Blueprint” which suggests extending the Augusta Common to the Savannah River.
The expansion would basically create a riverfront plaza that would visibly erase the barrier currently created by the existing levee.
The new plaza could offer various waterfront recreational and entertainment activities such as kayak expeditions, a water shuttle, personal watercraft rentals, a retail store, a cafe and exhibits interpreting the significance of the Savannah River to Augusta.
“The expansion of the Augusta Common will be another game-changer for us as a city,” Davis said.
“Just to think about tens of thousands of people out here on the Augusta Common for a concert or community events, once again, it allows us to go to the river, breach the levee and see something actually taking place on the water.”
Over the next few years, local residents will also see a vast influx of activity along the river with the construction of Project Jackson and the completion of the GreenJackets’ baseball stadium in North Augusta, Davis said.
“Some people see that as a loss to Augusta, but I see it as an opportunity of where now we can increase our collaborative efforts with North Augusta,” Davis said. “Commissioner Marion Williams has talked often about the idea of a water taxi. I want to see that happen. I think that is another public/private partnership opportunity between not only Augusta and North Augusta, but someone in the private sector and I think that’s going to happen.”
“The Savannah River is the lifeblood of our community,” Davis said. “We’ve gone from a textiles community way back when, with the Confederate Powder Works that is still over there — in terms of the structure itself — all the way up until today. Augusta and its relationship to the river and the river and its inherent value to the community is without question.”
In fact, there has been a lot of debate recently about what needs to be done with the aging New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam on the Savannah River and its future, Davis said.
“Obviously, there is an ongoing discussion about the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam and what will happen there,” he said. “I was part of a group that went to Washington D.C. a few weeks ago, which included the mayor of North Augusta. We went in there with our federal partners, our senators from the Georgia side and our congressmen on both the Georgia and South Carolina sides and said, ‘Here is what we collectively, as private citizens, business people and elected officials leading both cities, would like to see happen here.’ It was a coordinated effort. We were all saying the same thing in terms of the role of the river. It is not just quality of life that it offers us, but our manufacturing base is inherently tied to our river.”
When it comes to the Savannah River, Davis said it is vital that Augusta maintains the pool consistent with current levels that is sustainable to meet current and future uses with no increase in flooding risk to those located both above and below the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam.
The Savannah River must also be properly protected for future generations, Davis said.
“In a few weeks, we are going to have the richest drag boat races in the country, east of the Mississippi, right here in Augusta on the Savannah River,” Davis said. “And, in a few months from now, we are going to have the Ironman 70.3, so the river is extremely important for those reasons.”
While recreational purposes relating to the Savannah River are valuable to the city, the river is also Augusta’s water source, Davis pointed out.
“From a day-to-day operations standpoint, it’s our drinking water,” Davis said. “All of those things are tied to the river, so it is a resource that we have to, not only take care of, but it is a resource that we’ve got to be good stewards of.”
While there is a lot of excitement about the new additions to the city’s urban core, Davis said growth isn’t just happening in downtown Augusta.
Just last November, Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning joined local, state and federal officials along with senior Army leaders to break ground on the new Army Cyber headquarters at Fort Gordon.
Over the next several years, crews will be constructing a state-of-the-art headquarters for Army cyberspace operations at the fort, which is already home to the U.S. Army Cyber Center of Excellence.
During the first phase of construction, new facilities supporting Army Cyber Operations and Command and Control functions are planned to be completed by May 2018 at a cost of approximately $85 million.
A second phase of construction to support Cyber Protection Team operations is expected to be finished by early 2019.
The Army Cyber Command Complex will accommodate more than 1,200 cyber military personnel and civilians by late 2020.
The impact that Cyber Command will have on the entire CSRA is tremendous, Davis said.
But Davis believes the real boost to Augusta’s economy and growth truly began with the consolidation of Augusta State University and the Medical College of Georgia.
“I think the consolidation of Augusta University is what started this,” he said. “People say that cyber started this. I am of a different opinion.”
“When you think about the conversations we were having back in 2011 and 2012 about the consolidation of these two institutions, Augusta College and the Medical College of Georgia, that in my time in the Legislature, they were viewed as just community colleges. Upon consolidating those, we now put Augusta in a position of having the state’s fourth research institution.”
“That in and of itself is impressive, but what’s more impressive about it is that now you have an institution that can begin growing like a Georgia Southern or some of our other colleges,” Davis said. “That will allow us to grow as a city and build capacity in our urban core where you have a mix of students and working professionals that makes a city exciting. It’s very similar to what has happened in Athens. I think that’s what has really led to this renaissance.”
It has changed the way the entire state and Southeast is viewing Augusta, Davis said.
“You have the horsepower of a research institution that has historically been a liberal arts and healthcare college,” Davis said. “And so now you are saying, ‘Let’s help shape that narrative moving forward. It is not just liberal arts and healthcare, but innovation and technology.’ So people are viewing Augusta differently.”
“My friends in Atlanta are viewing Augusta differently. My friends under the Gold Dome are viewing Augusta differently.”
In fact, Augusta is on the verge of possibly becoming the world’s cyber security hub, Davis said.
“I remember a conversation we had in the winter of 2015 with (Augusta University President) Brooks Keel, myself, Sue Parr (the president of the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce) and a school board representative when we began to talk about this whole idea of the Cyber Innovation and Training Center,” Davis said. “That was in February 2015, and to see what has materialized since then has been remarkable. And that was just a conversation of what we could potentially be. It’s things like that that I think will be catalytic moments in our city’s future.”
But another key to the city’s success will be including progress and growth throughout all of Augusta-Richmond County, Davis said.
“Augusta will be her strongest when we address the issues of what I call our ‘Cyber Corridor,’” Davis said. “When the general at Fort Gordon gets in his vehicle and travels into downtown to our urban core towards the Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center, he has to go down Gordon Highway: an expanse of vacant, abandoned strip malls and parking lots that are basically empty. We have got to redouble our efforts in terms of seeing a renaissance in that area as well.”
While the city has helped enhance that corridor by agreeing to move the city’s transit facility from downtown to Deans Bridge Road and Gordon Highway, directly behind the former Regency Mall, there is still much to be done, Davis said.
“We are focused on that corridor. That’s why we have promoted the hashtag, #SOGO. That means South of Gordon,” Davis said. “I think that is perhaps one of the, if not the most important corridor going into downtown.”
As both the private and public sector continue to work together to help transform all of Augusta-Richmond County, nothing will be able to stop the future growth and the economic boom in the Garden City, Davis said.
“People have always had their eyes on Augusta,” Davis said. “I go back to my days in the state Legislature. People obviously talked about Augusta because of the Masters, but again, the word historically about Augusta has been, ‘So much potential. So much potential.’ Well, we have moved beyond potential. This is a field of dreams. Augusta is now a world of opportunity for all of our citizens.”