Augusta Commissioner Sammie Sias isn’t known for mincing his words.
After serving 28 years in the U.S. Army, retired Sgt. Maj. Sias generally speaks his mind and stands his ground.
Such was the case this past week when Sias issued a press release on Friday, July 27, both criticizing the developer of the proposed $93 million mixed-use project at the old train depot property on Reynolds Street and questioning a recent editorial in the Augusta Chronicle regarding the development.
Several months ago, commissioners agreed to allocate $14 million in bonds to the $93 million project, but commissioners recently were criticized for adding stipulations last month to the city’s investment in the development.
The developer, Augusta Development LLC, which is part of the Birmingham, Ala.- based company called BLOC Global Group, specifically objected to the commission’s requirement to commit to completing all phases of the project.
Last week, the Chronicle’s editorial staff demanded answers from each commissioner about their position on the depot project.
“Are you really ready to be personally responsible for blowing one of the biggest influxes of private capital this town has ever seen going back to its founding in 1736?” the July 27 editorial asked.
Sias didn’t hesitate in answering the editorial’s questions.
“I am ready to protect the taxpaying citizens of this city and county from any deal that is not economically feasible and financially sound in its planning,” Sias wrote in his July 27 press release. “There is only one absolute guarantee in life and that’s death! Just as I did not support the BAD DEAL to build the James Brown Arena at the old Regency Mall site, I will not support a bad deal from BLOC Global to construct the Depot Project.”
In addition, Sias addressed a letter sent to the city of Augusta from Herschell Hamilton of the BLOC Global Group.
In his letter, Hamilton wrote that the commission’s recent restrictions on the financing of the deal have “created an impasse” that has jeopardized the entire project.
“This adversarial approach and such actions cannot be interpreted as evidencing the needed trust between the parties; and as a result, our trust is severely diminished,” Hamilton wrote. “We cannot advance this project if our public sector partner continues to act with wanton disregard of the basic protocols of successful partnerships.”
Well, Sias shot right back at Hamilton and the Chronicle editorial.
“This editorial and the letter from Mr. Hamilton of BLOC Global is a pure insult to the Augusta Commission,” he wrote in his July 27 press release. “It seems that many in the private sector believe they can force any crooked or misrepresented deal on the Augusta Commission. Do you really believe that this Commission is that weak or that gullible?”
Crooked deal? That’s where Sias went a bit too far.
Sias also pointed out that neither Hamilton nor the Chronicle’s editorial staff have to answer to the taxpayers of Augusta.
“I hereby challenge Mr. Hamilton and the editorial staff to appear on August 11, 9:00 a.m., Jamestown Community Center, 3647 Karleen Rd, Hephzibah, GA 30815,” Sais said. “I host this event every second Saturday of the month where I am accountable face to face with the taxpayers of Augusta, GA. I don’t expect any of you will attend. I don’t believe you have the guts; prove me wrong.”
Sias definitely threw down the gauntlet, but it’s a challenge that really wouldn’t benefit Hamilton.
After all, Sias is just one vote on a 10-member commission, so it’s highly unlikely that Hamilton will make a special trip to Augusta just to attend Sias’ morning community meeting.
Regardless, Sias seemed to want to point out that the Augusta Commission is extremely friendly to large-scale projects if they are “presented properly.”
For example, Sias said the commission had no problem providing about $16 million for the construction of the Georgia Cyber Center’s parking deck or entering into a public-private partnership to construct the $30 million Foundry Place residential project in the historic Laney-Walker/Bethlehem area.
Sias also said that the Augusta Commission added those stipulations to the depot project to avoid creating a burden on the city’s general fund.
“The key was seeking the developer’s commitment to building the entire project in one phase, not two, so that the city could avoid that burden. Without that commitment, the city of Augusta would pay over a million dollars a year in debt service for the first three years of the project,” Sias wrote. “If both phases were not constructed at once, over a 20-year period, the city would pay $3.3 million over and above property tax revenues this project would generate.”
It’s sad that a once-extremely positive proposed development on the river has turned into an ugly public dispute.
When the project was first announced last November, the entire city was abuzz about the new $93 million development at the old depot.
“Outstanding,” Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis said immediately after the unanimous vote in November to approve the $14 million in bonds to help finance 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 now is the largest undeveloped riverfront site in downtown Augusta, which makes it a prime piece of real estate.
“This is a game-changer,” Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Margaret Woodard said last year. “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 would be really turning 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.”
While it’s sometimes hard not to get a bruised ego when serving as a local politician, it might be time for the Augusta commissioners, including Sias, to rethink their approach to this major development.
It’s good that Sias and the other commissioners are trying to look out for the taxpayers of Richmond County, but there’s a proper way to deal with potential developers.
Sending out a critical press release about a developer of a proposed $93 million project in downtown Augusta is definitely not the best approach.
It gets you nowhere fast.