For weeks, Augusta leaders have been dying to talk about future plans for the old train depot property on Reynolds Street that once served the South Carolina Railroad Company near the turn of the 20th century.
Finally, that day has come.
Well, sort of.
Commissioners also approved $14 million in Downtown Development Authority bonds to help finance the project.
“Outstanding,” Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis said immediately after the unanimous vote in support of the downtown project. “If anybody ever asks who’s the hardest working people in Augusta, it’s this commission.”
At approximately 6 acres, the Reynolds Street property is currently the largest undeveloped riverfront site in downtown Augusta, which makes it a prime piece of real estate that can’t help but attract a lot of attention.
Earlier this year, the Augusta Commission entered into an agreement with the Downtown Development Authority to specifically market the property in hopes of targeting a potential buyer and attracting a new project to the site.
“This is a game-changer,” said Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Margaret Woodard, adding that she could not provide a lot of details about the mixed- use project until the final documents are approved by the Augusta Commission. “That piece of property has been vacant for over 50 years.”
With the addition of this new $93 million development on one end of Reynolds Street and the $50 million Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center on the other, Woodard said downtown Augusta has really turned a corner.
“It’s incredible,” Woodard said. “With everything that is going on with Cyber and all the new hotels coming downtown, things are really happening. But we also have a housing crisis right now. We need housing downtown, so this will be an exciting project.”
Woodard said she hopes to “hammer out all the details” of the project within the next 60 days so that the city can properly unveil the $93 million development.
“We will move forward to get the master development agreement done in the next 60 days, bring it to the commission for approval and then we will have a press conference and update everybody on the project,” Woodard said. “We hope to have a groundbreaking by the summer of 2018.”
Augusta Commissioner Sean Frantom, who has hinted about potential plans to develop that property for months, said the development of the old depot property will be an enormous boost to downtown Augusta.
“We have the opportunity of a private company coming in to have a project, unlike anything ever in the history of Augusta,” Frantom said. “All I can say is, it’s mixed-use and it’s exciting. Hopefully, we will get it to the finish line very, very soon.”
For those who might be unfamiliar with the site, the old train depot sits along a large parcel of land on Fifth and Reynolds streets, and it was constructed in the early 1900s for South Carolina Railroad, which later merged into Southern Railway.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, railroads played a vitally important role in Augusta’s commerce and industry.
According to the book, “Rails Across Dixie: A History of Passenger Trains in the American South” by Jim Cox, Augusta had some of the most impressive depots and train stations in all of Georgia.
“For all but the first seven years of its life, the Georgia Railroad (1833-1983) was headquartered in Augusta,” Cox wrote. “During that time, passenger trains trekked daily between Augusta and the state capital at Atlanta. The town’s first depot, perhaps little more than a sheltered platform or a rustic waiting room, belonged to the Georgia line. The company dramatically improved on its efforts about 1870 when it constructed the city’s initial Union Station. The facility served a handful of short lines radiating from Augusta.”
But the second Union Station, built about five blocks from the Savannah River at the current site of the James Brown Arena in 1903, was a much more impressive structure.
“The culmination of all of this train activity in Augusta, however, was ultimately expressed in the erection of a second much more magnificent Union Station,” Cox wrote. “Completed in 1903, its location at Barrett Square about five blocks from the riverfront attracted all the carriers. Designed by Frank Pierce Milburn (1868-1926), an energetic New South architect who also drew plans for Savannah’s Union Station and many more, the Spanish Renaissance complex was of utterly majestic proportions.”
“Set under a cathedral dome, its spacious dual-level central gathering hall was the centerpiece of a stately facility whose extensive left and right single-story units completed a picture of formidable dominion,” Cox wrote. “A mammoth train shed at the rear ran the length of the station, and Georgia Railroad’s freight depot was situated behind Union Station, too.”
Unfortunately, Union Station ceased operations when the last passenger train out of Augusta left in April 1968.
“That structure was another victim of the wrecking ball in 1972,” Cox wrote.
For some historians, it is hard to believe that the old depot property on Reynolds Street is basically all that remains of Augusta’s once-vibrant train activity.
“Not much is left in the way of physical evidence of the railroad lines, however,” Cox wrote. “The single exception — and it isn’t much — is from the South Carolina Railroad’s depot dating from the 1850s. Situated at the corner of Fifth and Reynolds street, parts of that building still stand beside today’s CSX tracks.”
But for the past several decades, the old train depot has basically been in limbo due, in part, to the odd circumstances surrounding the city’s acquisition of the property.
After spending more than $27,000 of pensioners’ money on repairs, the city leased the building to Paul Wolfe, then the co-owner of Riverwalk Antique Depot, in 1993.
For more than five years, Wolfe operated his antique store in the former depot, paying approximately $10,400 a year in rent.
However, by 1999, the city realized that Wolfe’s lease was set to expire and decided to re-evaluate the building’s rent.
At the request of the pension plan participants, the city had a market value analysis performed on the property by Bill Hollingsworth, of Hollingsworth Appraisal Co. in 1999.
Back then, the analysis recommended an annual rent of $41,652 a year.
But instead of following Hollingsworth’s recommendation, the city’s pension committee suggested an increase in the rent on Wolfe’s new lease from $10,400 to $15,120 a year.
Needless to say, many of the pensioners were not pleased with the city’s management of the property and made their objections be known.
In 1999, former Augusta Fire Chief Bill Maddox, who passed away earlier this year, told the committee that the return rate on the property was unacceptable.
“We bought this property about eight years ago,” Maddox said in 1999. “At that time, we could have invested that million dollars in a 10-percent treasury note. I know, because I served 23 years on the state pension board and I checked in Atlanta. So, we have already lost between $700,000 and $800,000 on this thing.”
Maddox explained that, in 1997, an appraisal was made on the property during former Mayor Larry Sconyers’ administration and that the value of the property was approximately $1.25 million.
“We would be lucky to get that much for it,” Maddox told the Metro Spirit in 2000. “But we aren’t making anything right now.”
Frustrated with the handling of the property, the 1949 pensioners asked the city to look into selling the property.
However, that was tricky.
Then-County Administrator Randy Oliver told the pension committee in 2000 that the circumstances surrounding the property on Reynolds Street created a “balancing act.”
“In this particular case, I guess there are competing demands,” Oliver said. “One is the need for the revenue for the pension plan. The other is, we want vibrant businesses downtown. However, we don’t want those businesses to be subsidized at the expense of taxpayers.”
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the first time that participants of the 1949 pension plan had problems with the city and their retirement plan.
In 1995, the former city was reportedly facing a projected budgetary shortfall of $2.45 million. According to past articles in The Augusta Chronicle, the city was forced to pay approximately $750,000 from its general fund to three of the city’s defunct pension plans in 1994. So, in order to try to spare the 1995 budget the same expense, the city proposed merging the 1949 plan — which at the time had $49 million in its account — with the three bankrupt plans.
Then-City Attorney Paul Dunbar requested that the courts endorse the merger, but participants of the 1949 plan objected to the city’s proposal. As a result, former City Councilman Oscar Baker and former Augusta Police Chief James Beck (representing the 1949 pensioners) filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s action.
The participants of the 1949 pension plan were concerned that they would lose their portion of the pension money if the city’s pension plans were merged. But the city argued that fear was unfounded because the 1949 pension fund had a surplus of between $4 million and $11 million.
The pensioners’ lawsuit also asked Richmond County Chief Superior Court Judge William Fleming Jr. to order the former city to reimburse the 1949 pension fund the nearly $1 million the city had spent on Reynolds Street property.
Pensioners had discovered that the property, when purchased in 1988, had been deeded to the Augusta City Council instead of the lawful owners — the participants of the 1949 pension plan.
In April 1995, Fleming reportedly prevented the city from merging the plans because he felt the retirees who contributed to the 1949 plan should be protected and their money should not be touched by the city.
Soon after, the deed for the property on Reynolds Street was also corrected and the pensioners were named the property’s owners.
For years, pensioners remained upset about the city’s decision to purchase the Reynolds Street property.
Former City Councilman Oscar Baker, who passed away in 2015, was one of the leaders in the fight to protect the benefits of the city’s retirees.
Baker, who was a retired captain from the Augusta Fire Department, was also covered by the city’s 1949 pension plan and believed the former city treated its retirees with complete disregard.
“I don’t think they acted in our best interest,” Baker told the Metro Spirit in 2000. “I may be wrong, but I think a trustee is supposed to make sure that, if they invest our money, we should have a good return on it.”
Baker, who had served on the City Council for more than 14 years, said he was never assigned to the city’s pension committee and that, because he had never heard any negative reports concerning the pension fund, he assumed all was well.
But one day, Baker arrived at a City Council meeting a little early and noticed there was a pension meeting in progress, so he decided to attend the meeting.
“I heard Mayor DeVaney say that he wanted to take $3 million out of our pension fund to operate the city with because they were in dire need of funds,” Baker said in 2000. “I immediately jumped to my feet and said, ‘You better not touch that pension fund. I will carry you to court. Even if I have to pay it out of my own pocket.’”
Baker said he knew what the mayor was suggesting was wrong.
“That (pension) money was paid into that fund by the employees and the city,” he said in 2000. “And Mayor DeVaney thought just because it was overfunded and the city had contributed to it, that they could reach in there and get some money. I wasn’t going to let that happen.”
That’s when Baker hired attorneys Duncan Wheale and Jack Long to represent the pensioners and they went before Judge Fleming to fight the city.
Long told the Metro Spirit in 2000 that without individuals like Baker and Beck watching the city’s actions, the pension fund would have been gutted.
“Frankly, if it hadn’t been for Oscar Baker and Jim Beck, the pensioners could have lost a lot of money,” Long said in 2000. “They came forth and said, ‘We are not going to let this happen.’ And that basically protected that pension plan.”
Long insisted that the former city was playing a dangerous game using the pension money to buy the property on Reynolds Street.
“Frankly, pension money should not have been used for that purpose,” Long said in 2000. “The law is clear: You cannot fool with those pension funds.”
Finally, by 2005, the city agreed to purchase the Reynolds Property from the city pension fund for approximately $1.7 million.
But, since that time, the property has seen very little action.
In fact, the old train depot was listed as one of Historic Augusta’s “Endangered Properties” a few years ago.
Back in 2009, plans for a more than $100 million project on the Reynolds Street property called “The Watermark,” which would have included condominiums, a hotel, retail stores and office space, also fell through.
As a result, the city decided to take a different approach.
That’s when the commission entered into the agreement with the Downtown Development Authority to specifically market the property.
Evidently, the idea worked because Augusta leaders are thrilled over the potential of the project.
“It will be the largest single project in the history of downtown,” Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis said about the $93 million development. “It will be huge.”