With the holiday season upon us, it’s time to reflect on what the Augusta area has learned over the past 12 months.
It’s no secret that some local officials have definitely kept Santa on his toes checking his list not once, but twice, to see exactly who has been naughty and nice.
And, let’s just say it, some folks should expect nothing but a few lumps of coal in their stockings.
Whether it was damaging scandals, contentious elections or endless debates about the future of the city, 2018 was anything but a smooth ride for many local residents.
There have been a lot of highs and some definite lows this year.
The Augusta area can only hope that 2019 brings brighter days ahead. Happy holidays, everybody!
Contentious Elections in 2018
Between the race for Augusta mayor in May and the July runoff for Columbia County’s next chair to replace retiring Chairman Ron Cross, this year has sent many local voters racing to the polls.
But as the election results came rolling in this year, several familiar faces in local politics were victorious.
During the May 22 election, incumbent Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis was re-elected to four more years by earning more than 55 percent of the votes over his challenger, Gould Hagler II, who received about 44 percent of the votes.
This, despite the fact, that the mayor had really turned some people’s stomachs during his first term in office.
Davis didn’t help matters by creating a great deal of political tension surrounding the debate over the future location of the new James Brown Arena.
Despite a non-binding vote on the May 22 ballot that indicated more local voters wanted to keep the proposed $120 million arena at the current downtown location, Davis still flip-flopped on the issue even though he promised he would support the outcome of the non-binding vote regarding the arena.
“You can decide whether you want it at the Regency location or whether you want it to be built at the current location downtown,” Davis told voters earlier this year. “As your mayor, I am going to hold the flag up and I am going to support whatever decision the people decide.”
Let’s just say, Davis hasn’t really been flying the flag for the arena to be built downtown. But he hasn’t mentioned the former Regency Mall site as a potential location in several months either, so that’s progress.
And six members of the Augusta Commission did vote in August to officially support the existing downtown location, even though some commissioners weren’t happy about the decision by voters.
“My choice is Regency Mall. I really think it should have gone to Regency Mall, but the voters said differently,” Augusta Commissioner Bill Fennoy said in August. “So I think we should accept the wishes of the voters.”
That’s what democracy is all about, he said.
“If we are going to put something on the ballot, even though it is non-binding, we need to accept whatever that is and move on,” Fennoy said. “If you are not willing to accept what’s on there, we don’t need to put it on the ballot.”
We’ll see what happens in the future for the arena.
The Feud in Columbia County
As for the extremely close race for the next chair of the Columbia County Commission, many Columbia County residents were cheering over the fact that Columbia County Commissioner Doug Duncan defeated former EMA Director Pam Tucker in the July runoff.
With Duncan’s win, most local residents believe Duncan will continue in the tradition of Ron Cross’s leadership and there won’t be much change in the current politics of Columbia County.
After all, Duncan has a solid working relationship with current commissioners Trey Allen and Gary Richardson, as well as County Administrator Scott Johnson.
Duncan also seemed very pleased with the fact that the construction company executive, Connie Melear, easily won the District 1 seat with 74 percent of the vote and candidate Dewey Galeas won the District 4 seat with 54 percent.
Both Melear and Galeas appear to have similar views to Duncan on the county’s growth.
Earlier this year, Duncan told the Metro Spirit it is important for the new chairperson to be able to work with everyone within the county government.
“Our form of county government is not unlike a business,” he said. “The board of directors are the commissioners, your administrator is like the president or CEO, and the assistant administrators are like your vice presidents.”
Each has a very important role within the county, Duncan said.
“The chairman does not run the county,” he said. “I will not run Columbia County. That is not my job. I just oversee and give direction. I remember (Commissioner) Trey Allen described it one time by saying the commission is the conscience of the county. I agree with that. And I want a good relationship with everybody because we are all on the same team.”
The Dark Cloud Over John Clarke
In the Augusta Commission Super District 10 race, political newcomer John Clarke narrowly defeated candidate Lori Myles in May.
But then Clarke’s past came back to haunt him.
Just after the election, Clarke stood before voters during a press conference asking for forgiveness regarding past racist posts he made on Facebook.
“Those angry postings are not who I am,” Clarke said during a May 25 press conference. “I ask the citizens of Augusta to give me the opportunity to serve through my service on the Augusta-Richmond County Commission over the next four years. Again, I sincerely offer my apology, and I hope and I pray and I am asking for your forgiveness. Let’s please move forward together.”
The posts, which were made in 2014, dealt with the protests in Ferguson, Mo., after the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer.
In one particular post by Clarke, which since has been removed from Facebook, the N-word was used several times along with many other obscenities and racially charged statements.
In one section of the Facebook post, Clarke allegedly wrote the following, “Now I’m expressing my freedom of speech. To the N****** of Fergusion [sic], Mo. If you don’t want to be called N******, Stop acting like N******.”
For days, Clarke denied making those posts, insisting that his Facebook account had been hacked just before the May 22 election.
But as more people learned about the racist posts, citizens throughout the community and even some of his colleagues on the commission began calling for his resignation.
Many citizens wanted Clarke to step down from the District 10 seat before even serving one day in office because the Facebook posts were so divisive and offensive.
However, Clarke insisted those racist comments do not reflect his true feelings.
“Those comments were on my page, and I take full responsibility for the postings that appeared,” Clarke said. “I sincerely apologize for any pain and confusion this has caused my family, my supporters, my constituents and this great city.”
In the end, Clarke was allowed to take his District 10 seat, but not without controversy.
Following the recent death of longtime Augusta Commissioner Grady Smith, the Augusta Commission voted to appoint Clarke to fill the unexpired term of Smith.
Prior to his swearing in, Augusta Commissioner Bill Fennoy openly and very publicly objected to Clarke’s appointment.
Fennoy said he could not support Clarke’s appointment because of the Facebook posts he made that contained the n-word.
While presenting his argument in public, Fennoy repeatedly used the racial slur, which shocked many people in the audience.
After the meeting, one of Fennoy’s colleagues called his public remarks “a total embarrassment for the city.”
“He was completely out of line and showed exactly how an elected official should not behave in public,” Mayor Pro Tem Mary Davis told The Augusta Chronicle.
However, some other commissioners agreed with Fennoy, saying that Clarke’s Facebook posts have altered their opinion of the newly appointed commissioner.
“My feeling is, he did the posts and I’m going to be watching him really closely now,” Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams said. “I can’t trust him as easily as I would have before all of this came up.”
It’s definitely not a great start for Clarke’s term in office.
Good News in the Garden City
With the opening of the new Augusta GreenJackets’ baseball stadium and the construction of the $200 million Riverside Village development this year, North Augusta has a lot to celebrate.
But downtown Augusta also had a lot to cheer about this year, including the incredible success of newly renovated Miller Theater on Broad Street.
In its first year, The Miller has hosted incredible live performances by a variety of nationally known artists such as Dwight Yoakam, Kris Kristofferson, Mary Chapin Carpenter, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Black Violin, Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen, Chris Isaak, “Weird Al” Yankovic, The Indigo Girls and Drivin’ N Cryin’.
It’s hard for many locals to believe that the same historic theater on Broad Street that sat dark and empty for more than 30 years is now filled with so much life.
Marty Elliott, the general manager of the Miller Theater, is extremely proud of what her team has accomplished this year.
“The more you have high-quality acts in an intimate environment like we have at the Miller, the better,” Elliot told the Metro Spirit earlier this year. “Because when you see somebody like, let’s say, Charlie Daniels, he is an artist that, probably most people in our market if they have an interest in that kind of music, they’ve probably seen him because he plays fairly often in the fair and festival circuit. But I can promise you, you’ve never seen him the way you can see him in a 1,300-cap room that is designed for a symphony. I promise you, it is an experience that will blow you away.”
Elliott, who came to The Miller after managing the Fifth Third Bank Stadium and the Sports and Entertainment Park at Kennesaw State University, said she knew it was important for the historic theater to not only be known as the home of Symphony Orchestra Augusta, but also as an exciting new venue that offers many diverse shows throughout the year.
And as more national artists come to perform at the Miller, word will begin spread about the historic venue and its incredible atmosphere, Elliott said.
“I think we have a chance, when we get these marquee artists who are doing what they do in such a beautiful room with such great acoustics, it has the kind of opportunity to spread the word about how great the experience is, so it will get easier to attract more artists over time,” Elliott said. “We won’t be always trying to explain who we are.”
Along with the booming success of The Miller, its neighbors across the street also celebrated a milestone in 2018.
The Imperial Theatre celebrated 100 years on Broad Street this year.
When it first opened on Feb. 18, 1918, the Imperial was a silent movie theater and vaudeville house called the Wells Theatre, established by Jake Wells.
During the time it was built back in 1917, it brought life back to downtown Augusta, after the great fire of 1916.
The theater opening up after that destruction created a bright spot in a dark time in Augusta’s history.
“Our marquee (now) is actually a copy, or reproduction, of the 1938 marquee,” Charles Scavullo, who has served as the theater’s executive director since 2007, told the Metro Spirit earlier this year. “The color scheme that we have now is 1980s earth tone variety, and it had been painted a few times in the ’30s and ’50s, as well. But the original color scheme was a gray, gold, silver and a rouge red. And the gray was kind of reminiscent of silver.”
“It was very vibrant,” he continued. “The movie theaters were trying to attract the public to come in, and they wanted the experience of coming in to see a movie, coming to see a show to be an exciting experience — think Disney. So all of these walls were popping with color.”
The theater was innovative for its time. In fact, Scavullo said it was the first building in downtown Augusta that had air-conditioning.
“The air-conditioning was accomplished by way of having giant fans that were mounted above the ceiling, actually on the roof of the building,” he said. “And they would haul blocks of ice up using the pulley system from the alley. They’d haul the blocks of ice up and put them between the fans, and then they’d turn the electric fans on and blow the cool air into the building.”
The stage has been graced with some major names in entertainment history.
One of the first would be Charlie Chaplin, a silent movie star and huge name in entertainment back then. He came to the theater in Augusta in April 1918, shortly after its opening, to sell war bonds to support the World War I effort.
In recent years, the theater has been undergoing renovations and restoration to keep it vibrant for years to come.
“Fortunately, we’ve been very blessed over the past few years,” Scavullo said. “We’ve had some really good years, and we are, thank heavens, in a good position financially, so that’s great.”
Sad Losses in the Augusta area
There have also been some heavy hearts in the Augusta area in 2018.
Earlier this year, Augusta commissioners and city leaders were forced to face the harsh reality that Super District 10 Commissioner Grady Smith had died on Oct. 16, leaving an empty seat on the commission, but an even bigger hole in the community’s heart.
No one will ever be able to replace Smith’s humor and kindness on the Augusta Commission.
And just last month, tragedy once again struck the city.
Augusta commissioners were shocked to learn that another colleague, District 5 Commissioner Andrew Jefferson, had also passed away suddenly at 58 years old.
Jefferson, who took office in 2017, was attending a worship service at Good Shepherd Baptist Church when he suddenly collapsed. He was taken to University Hospital where he later died.
Jefferson, who had previously served on the Richmond County School Board and had retired from Augusta Technical College in 2016 after more than 30 years in education, still had two years left of his four-year term.
Jefferson was known as a quiet man on the Augusta Commission, but when he spoke, people listened because his arguments were always well thought out.
The losses of both Jefferson and Smith have left a huge hole on the Augusta Commission that will be extremely difficult to fill.
Across the Savannah River, our neighbors in Aiken, S.C. also suffered a great loss this year.
Aiken horse trainer and Dogwood Stable President Cothran “Cot” Campbell died in October at 91.
Just this summer, Campbell was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame as “Pillar of the Turf,” which is an honor given to individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to the sport.
Among Campbell and Dogwood’s accomplishments over the years were Summer Squall’s Preakness Stakes win in 1990 and filly Storm Song’s sales-topping bid of $1.4 million at the 1997 Keeneland November sale. Dogwood had purchased Storm Song two years earlier at Keeneland for $100,000.
Over the years, Campbell’s Dogwood Stable raced more than 80 stakes winners, including Palace Malice, who won the 2013 Belmont Stakes.
Campbell was a racing visionary, who truly revolutionized horse ownership in this country. But he was also a blast to be around.
Through the years, the Metro Spirit was able to interview Campbell on several occasions and each experience was unforgettable.
Campbell, who was born in New Orleans, La., and spent much of his life in Atlanta, called Aiken home for the past several decades.
Campbell was proud that Aiken had a presence as a horse-training community that extended around the globe.
Horses also brought much to the city of Aiken, Campbell said.
“In the horse world you can go to Paris, France, or England and talk about great training centers and they know about Aiken, South Carolina,” Campbell said in 2002. “So I think it creates a personality for the city and brings a lot of rather glamorous visitors in, who come for polo or horse shows or horse races or training of horses. There’s no doubt about it; it brings some heavy money into the city for visits; some of them stay and live here.”
Campbell will be deeply missed.
Another passing this year that left both residents of Augusta and Aiken truly heartbroken was the death of local musician Phillip Lee Jr.
Earlier this year, the Metro Spirit talked to the family and friends of Phillip Lee Jr. about dealing with their grief and supporting local efforts to raise awareness about mental illness and help prevent suicides.
Needless to say, it’s been an extremely difficult year.
“About six years ago, Phillip made the decision to come back to the area and pursue a musical career,” said his father, Pastor Phillip Lee of Cedar Creek Church in Aiken. “And he pursued that with everything he had. He played wherever and whenever he could.”
The family fully supported Phillip Lee Jr.’s choice to become a musician because he truly seemed to be in his element on stage, Lee said.
“It was obvious that he was doing what God had created him to do,” Lee said. “Whether he was on stage at the Imperial Theatre playing with Ed Turner and Number 9 or on the stage of our church leading worship, it was obvious music was his passion and that’s what he was created to do.”
Over the past several months, the Lee family has been deeply touched by all the people in the Aiken-Augusta area who have reached out and shared their stories and love for Phillip Lee Jr.
“Because of Phillip’s struggles, I think he had an incredibly tender heart for people who were also hurting,” Lee said. “He could tell who was hurting, and he made time for them.”
Part of God’s purpose for his son was to help others, Lee said.
“So many people have shared stories about how he would come off the stage and just be available for them and spend time with them. He wasn’t a rock star,” Lee said, smiling. “Phillip never felt like he was above anyone. He could relate to everybody, whether it was a music executive in California or a homeless guy on Broad Street. He could relate, and he could feel their pain.”
Downtown Augusta just doesn’t feel the same without Phillip Lee Jr.
A Bright Future
While there’s also been some sad business closings to report this year, there have been some exciting new developments as well.
Earlier this year, locals were shocked to learn that Sky City, the longtime live music venue on Broad Street, was no longer in business.
After spending nearly a decade bringing well-known national acts and local bands to an increasingly vibrant downtown, the longtime venue that was successfully run by co-owners Coco Rubio, Jayson Rubio and Eric Kinlaw was purchased late last year by new partners, George Claussen and Brian Brittingham.
But after less than a year, Claussen and Brittingham decided to sell their ownership in the business and Sky City closed its doors.
In its place, a new venue called Garden City Social opened this year on Broad Street that features a beer garden and a concert series in an outdoor atmosphere.
Also in September, news quickly spread that The Country Club Dance Hall & Saloon was closing as well.
The Country Club, which first opened on St. Patrick’s Day back in 2006 on Washington Road, was originally known for bringing mainly national country singers to the area.
But in recent years, The Country Club has offered a variety of live music, especially during Masters Week, including a whole lineup of national artists such as Bret Michaels, Lil Jon, Nelly and Snoop Dogg.
In fact, a few years ago for Halloween, The Country Club shocked locals by bringing hard rockers, the Velcro Pygmies, to host a zombie-themed costume party with a contest at midnight for cash prizes.
Of course, earlier this year, the Metro Spirit had already told readers that the Augusta National Golf Club had purchased the Stein Mart shopping center, which is also home to The Country Club.
But the Augusta area had its share of positive business news this year, too.
Not only did Augusta celebrate the addition of TaxSlayer and the U.S. Army Cyber Center of Excellence to the downtown area, the proposed $94 million mixed-use development at the old train depot property on Reynolds Street is finally becoming a reality.
The mayor, Augusta commissioners and community leaders joined representatives from BLOC Global Group, an Alabama development group that specializes in major public-private partnerships, to unveil plans earlier this year for a $94 million residential, office and retail project called Riverfront at the Depot.
A video of the project included a four-story apartment building that will offer about 140 upscale apartment units, about 100,000 square feet of office space and more than 800 parking spots inside a three-level parking deck that opens to the levee.
Right next to the apartment building will be a similar four-story office building that is surrounded by a beautifully designed amphitheater, public green space and a fountain area.
The historic depot building also will be completely renovated and possibly transformed into a restaurant.
Everyone from Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis to Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Margaret Woodard have called this development a “game-changer” for downtown Augusta.
Construction of the $94 million project is expected to begin in the summer of 2019 with approximately $14 million of public support coming from the city.
This is a huge development that wasn’t easy to pull off.
But with the addition of this new $94 million development on one end of Reynolds Street and the Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center on the other, it looks like downtown Augusta is really turning a corner.
Let’s keep that momentum going in 2019.