After more than 32 years of public service to North Augusta, of which 20 of those years he served as mayor, Lark Jones has earned a very heartfelt thanks from the entire Augusta area.
Jones has honorably served North Augusta.
And folks absolutely adore him there.
But for those longtime residents of the city of Augusta, they also always knew they had a friend in Lark Jones.
While some of our neighbors in surrounding municipalities love to poke fun at the controversies that pop up in the Garden City, Jones was never that kind of leader.
He respected Augusta’s differences and always wished the city well.
Even when some of Augusta’s past leadership didn’t always return the favor.
One particular instance comes to mind when Augusta Mayor Bob Young was in office.
Several years back, Augusta was experiencing an increase of rats running along the Riverwalk, which, needless to say, was less than inviting to our guests staying at hotels along the Savannah River.
The city of Augusta was having to treat the Riverwalk in order to rid the Garden City of these nuisances.
When a Metro Spirit reporter asked then-Augusta Mayor Bob Young about the increase in river rats, Young responded by saying that “the rats are coming from the North Augusta side.”
While North Augusta was busy developing its beautiful riverfront homes at the time and there was a lot of construction going on across the river, Young’s statement was less than flattering to our friends across the river.
When the Metro Spirit asked Jones about Young’s comment, he couldn’t help but politely ask, “Did he really say that?”
It was one of those moments that the reporter knew exactly what Jones was thinking, but Jones was smart and bit his tongue.
He paused and took a few seconds to consider his response.
Jones didn’t slam Young. He didn’t make some off-the-cuff joke about “the real rats rule Augusta.”
He just simply said, “I’m not going to respond to that comment.”
That kind of leadership shows the respect that he had for his position as mayor of North Augusta.
A few years later, Jones had another opportunity to make fun of the city Augusta in 2003 when then-City Administrator George Kolb announced a proposal that surrounding municipalities should help fund a proposed $89 million civic arena.
At the time, two local business leaders and tenants of the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center — William S. Morris III, chairman of the Augusta Futurity and the National Barrel Horse Association, and Frank Lawrence, the owner of Augusta’s arena football team at the time — commissioned a feasibility study to determine whether the CSRA could afford to build a new, 12,000-seat arena off River Watch Parkway.
According to the study’s research team, led by ScheerGame Sports Development out of Jacksonville, Fla., Augusta was recommended to get a little help from its nearby friends.
“Our public neighbors — Columbia County, North Augusta, the City of Aiken and Aiken County — will be asked to participate, not only spiritually, but more importantly financially to make this a true, regional development,” Kolb announced in 2003.
Kolb said that, with the support of the neighboring municipalities, the new civic arena would become a reality.
The only problem was, this proposal was news to the neighboring municipalities at the time.
Then-State Rep. Ben Harbin of Martinez was in complete disbelief when he heard about the proposal.
In fact, Harbin said it was a good thing that he wasn’t at Kolb’s presentation at the time because he “might not have been able to contain” himself.
“When I read in the paper that $15 million or $20 million was coming from Columbia County, I just laughed out loud,” Harbin told the Metro Spirit in 2003.
That $15 million figure simply appeared to fall from the sky, Harbin said.
“I started asking around and I couldn’t find anybody in Columbia County that knew why the people planning the arena had put that figure in there or where it came from or who they got approval from to put it in there, if anybody,” Harbin said. “If you are going to include us in the presentation and ask for $15 million, you’d think we’d get an invite to the meeting. I don’t think anybody knew about it.”
Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross was equally blunt at the time of the 2003 proposal.
“Those pushing the arena are trying awful hard to tie this into a downtown revitalization for Augusta,” Cross told the Metro Spirit in 2003. “And, of course, very few people in Columbia County are going to have much interest in revitalizing downtown Augusta.”
However, when North Augusta Mayor Lark Jones was asked about the proposal, he tried to be diplomatic, but honest.
“I did hear a couple of weeks ago that apparently somebody had checked into it and found that it would not be legal for us to give Augusta money without the state Legislature getting involved to pass some sort of authority between both states,” Jones said, adding that he didn’t mind discussing the project with Augusta, but didn’t think it was going to be feasible. “There would be a control issue. If you put money into something, you want to have some element of control. And how much control should you have if you only put in 5 percent of the money?”
Jones said North Augusta would have a hard time simply providing money for a “cooperative effort” without any real control.
“When you build something, you build it to help the whole community without asking them for anything in return,” Jones said.
Now, several years later, North Augusta is actually the one stepping up to the plate.
Ever since Project Jackson was proposed along the Savannah River in North Augusta 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.
Project Jackson is far from just the future home of the Augusta GreenJackets.
The estimated $180 million project is expected to include not only a baseball park, but a proposed hotel and conference center, restaurants, retail shops, luxury residential units and an office building.
Project Jackson could be a major game changer for North Augusta, as well as downtown Augusta.
Originally, the GreenJackets had hoped to call North Augusta home by the 2015 season. However, due to a few setbacks, the North Augusta ballpark will likely not be ready until the 2018 season or later.
But, from the very beginning of the project, Jeff Eiseman, an owner in the GreenJackets along with Chris Schoen, were great partners in the project, Jones told the Metro Spirit last year.
However, Jones said he was always mindful of the fact that he didn’t want to step on Augusta’s toes while negotiating the new ballpark.
“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 Augusta’s Golf and Gardens,” Jones said. “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.’”
Who does that anymore?
A politician who actually respects another municipality and its political leaders enough not to try to steal a major economic development project away from them?
Lark Jones, that’s who.
The two cities have always been 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… So I wouldn’t talk about the ballpark in North Augusta until I knew the negotiations had ended in Augusta.”
If Project Jackson is successful, the development is expected to positively feed into downtown North Augusta, Jones said.
“And, hopefully, downtown North Augusta will get some more restaurants and retail. After all, that’s what happened in Greenville, S.C.,” Jones said. “So, we are hoping to have a venue where someone in this area — not just in North Augusta, but in this entire area — on a Friday or Saturday night might say, ‘What do you want to do?’ And someone else says, ‘Why don’t we ride over to North Augusta and see what is happening down on the riverfront.’”
The next thing you know, there will be more visitors dining, shopping and taking a nice stroll along the river in both North Augusta and downtown Augusta, Jones said.
“We have a wonderful river, but we don’t have a riverfront with restaurants and retail. And with the Riverwalk in Augusta, it doesn’t work that way because of the levee on the river. The levee blocks everything,” Jones said. “So this will be a great new addition along the Savannah River that I think will help promote both cities in the future.”
That’s the kind of leadership this entire Augusta area really needs.