It’s like the more money we come across
The more problems we see.” — The Notorious B.I.G.
Augusta is currently in limbo when it comes to the future of the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam and the possibility of a whitewater park.
Just last year, the Augusta Commission agreed to spend $40,000 to hire the Colorado firm, McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group, to review and evaluate the area around the deteriorating New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam to see if a whitewater park would be possible in Richmond County.
McLaughlin Whitewater is the same company that designed the extremely popular adjustable whitewater park in Columbus, Ga. that has tourism booming in that city. The company has also worked with cities and community groups all over the country including Raleigh, N.C., Tulsa, Okla., and Florence, Ala.
However, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced plans in November to remove the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, which is approximately 80 years old, and replace it with a rock weir and fish passage. Those plans could potentially kill any future whitewater development in the area.
As a result, just before the holidays, the Augusta Commission went on record opposing the Corps of Engineers’ plan because it could drastically impact the water levels of the Savannah River. Instead, the Augusta Commission passed a resolution in favor of retaining the aging dam. But that will likely leave Augusta holding the bag for the full cost of either maintaining the dam and/or developing a whitewater park.
When Columbus built its whitewater park several years ago, the estimated price tag for that project was more than $25 million.
Through a public-private investment and the dramatic removal of two dams on the Chattahoochee River via dynamite by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Columbus developed an adjustable whitewater park called the “Waveshaper” that allows river managers to customize the rapids to the needs of paddlers and whitewater rafters on the river.
Columbus’ urban whitewater rafting course officially opened on Memorial Day weekend in 2013 and it has been thriving ever since.
So, could a whitewater park in Augusta experience the same success?
City leaders seem hopeful that such a park could become a reality in Augusta, however, a recent announcement by the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte might have just hurt Augusta’s chances.
On Dec. 17, The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C. reported that the U.S. National Whitewater Center will collaborate with Columbia officials on a recreational project at the city’s downtown Finlay Park.
This proposed “outdoor attraction” will basically be an hour away from Augusta.
But anyone who’s ever been to Finlay Park in Columbia is left wondering what exactly is the U.S. National Whitewater Center going to do with this aging park that features a stagnant pond and a manmade waterfall that doesn’t look like it has properly worked in years.
In fact, the only life found in Finlay Park these days are some of the city’s homeless who regularly congregate there.
So, what exactly is the city of Columbia planning?
Well, the Columbia City Council agreed to look at a plan with the U.S. National Whitewater Center that could completely redevelop the 18-acre park and add a nearby hotel and upscale residences.
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin told Free Times, the city’s altweekly, that the plan is to overhaul the entire park.
“Our hope is that this will be a public-private project,” Benjamin told Free Times. “This will be a public park with unfettered public access. We would start seeing some development down there. Hopefully a hotel and, if I have my way, some residential. And there would be an outpost of the Whitewater Center … There’s a concept that they’ve advanced that would bring some of the features of the Whitewater Center to Columbia, to downtown’s Finlay Park.”
When pressed further about the features of the Charlotte attraction that could be a part of the 18-acre Finlay Park, the mayor would only say that it could be a “serious outdoor activity.”
The U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte is situated on more than 1,300 acres and has many outdoor facets, including rafting, kayaking, paddle boarding, rock climbing, zip lines, rope courses and mountain biking.
Columbia City Councilman Howard Duvall told The State that he believes the Whitewater Center attraction in Columbia would be considered a satellite “outpost” for the center and could make Finlay Park “a regional draw.”
But there’s still hope, Augusta.
Mayor Benjamin told The State that while “the space doesn’t allow for whitewater” activities at the downtown 18-acre park, rock climbing is one of the more popular activities at the Charlotte park that Columbia is considering.
“If we’re going to turn this into the marquee park it should be, then it’s going to require us thinking big,” Benjamin reportedly said. “If we’re going to be the city that we aspire to be, we need to have unique, urban outdoor experiences… The vision is in motion. We’re talking about engaging the public on what they want to see this crown jewel become in its second iteration.”
So, the window is still open for Augusta to possibly have a regional whitewater park that could attract thousands of tourists from across the Southeast each year.
But time is ticking and other nearby cities are considering similar options. Let’s hope Augusta doesn’t wait too long to get moving.
While some sore losers want to blame heavy rains, especially the downpours experienced in the downtown area and west Augusta neighborhoods, as the reason why south Augusta voters dominated at the polls this Tuesday, the truth is, you can’t point fingers at Mother Nature.
South Augusta voters turned out to the polls in force and made their voices heard during the May 22 election.
As a result, incumbent Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis was re-elected to four more years.
By the end of election night, Davis earned more than 55 percent of the votes while his challenger, Gould Hagler II, received about 44 percent of the votes.
As for the non-binding vote on the future location of the new James Brown Arena, the results are mixed.
According to the election results in Richmond County, the majority of Republicans favor the James Brown Arena remaining downtown, while Democrats in Richmond County appear to be heavily divided on the topic.
Overall, those supporting the James Brown Arena remaining downtown are declaring a victory because a majority of voters backed building a new arena at the current downtown location. In fact, more than 60 percent of those voting on Tuesday supported the downtown location.
However, more than 11,000 Democratic voters in Augusta supported the new $120 million arena being built at the former Regency Mall location, while approximately 9,600 Democrats supported the new James Brown Arena being built at the current downtown location.
Meanwhile, more than 7,600 Republican voters wanted to keep the James Brown Arena downtown, while only about 1,900 Republican wanted the new arena to be built at the Regency Mall location.
So, what will that mean for the Augusta Commission’s decision on the fate of the new arena?
Everything is still up in the air.
Technically, more voters supported the new James Brown Arena remaining at the downtown location, but it wasn’t an overwhelming majority that could have slammed the door shut on the proposed Regency Mall site.
That leaves a lot of wiggle room for politicians who know how to use it. But if Davis sticks to his word, the new arena should be built downtown.
After all, over the past several weeks, Davis has said he would support the outcome of the two non-binding questions regarding the arena on the ballot. No matter what the decision.
“It is a divisive issue,” Davis said last month, adding that the arena debate had changed the “tone” of this election. “Many individuals who supported me previously are now supporting my opponent because of a singular decision to choose the Regency location as the place that we will build a multi-purpose arena.”
Davis said that “single decision” was altering people’s view of his entire performance as mayor.
Therefore, Davis said he was committed to supporting the result of the non-binding questions on the ballot.
“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 said. “As your mayor, I am going hold the flag up and I am going to support whatever decision the people decide.”
Let’s see if Davis is a man of his word.
But, of course, the final decision will be made Augusta commissioners. They can do basically whatever the hell they want to do. So, most likely, Augusta is probably heading back to the drawing board when it comes to the future of the new arena.
As for the rest of the election results in Richmond County, incumbents on the Augusta Commission fared very well.
Incumbent commissioners Ben Hasan, Dennis Williams and Sammy Sias were all re-elected to another term.
In the Augusta Commission Super District 10 race, political newcomer John Clarke narrowly defeated candidate Lori Myles.
As for the much-watched election for Richmond County State Court judge, candidate Monique Walker, the daughter of former state Sen. Charles Walker, defeated incumbent Bo Hunter at the polls.
Now, taking a look at Augusta’s neighbors in Columbia County, the campaign for chair of the commission is still alive and well.
All three candidates vying to succeed incumbent chairman Ron Cross ran a very competitive race, but only two remain for the runoff: Former EMA Director Pam Tucker and District 1 Columbia County Commissioner Doug Duncan.
Duncan led the night with approximately 47 percent of the votes, but Tucker was a close second with about 44 percent. Business owner Mark Herbert received approximately 9 percent.
So, now it will come down to who works harder over the next two months to win the trust of Columbia County voters: Tucker or Duncan.
Keep an eye on this race.
It will definitely get interesting.
People can’t accuse Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree of not going to bat for his officers … at least, when it comes to cash.
This past budget season, Roundtree really put his neck out trying to get his employees proper raises.
He even ran a 20-second ad on local airwaves urging the public to support a pay increase for deputies, a move that didn’t sit well with several Augusta commissioners.
“The much-needed raises for law enforcement were not included in the 2018 budget. Shouldn’t these officers be equally compensated for the work they do?” an announcer in the ad asked. “Responding to over 370,000 service calls. Reducing violent crime over 30 percent and property crime over 40 percent. These officers are doing their job. So please ask your commissioners, what’s more important than the safety of our community? Commissioners, you now have the opportunity to make things right.”
The ad ended with the message “Paid for by Sheriff Richard Roundtree.”
But some Augusta commissioners were disappointed that the sheriff didn’t attend many of the budget workshops and, instead, turned to the airwaves to make his case.
Despite the sheriff’s actions, the Augusta Commission and City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson compromised and found the sheriff some additional funds by mid-November.
In the end, the sheriff was allocated about $1.8 million for staff pay increases in the 2018 budget.
While it was less than the $2.4 million Roundtree had originally asked for this past summer, it was more than the $750,000 that the Archer Company, the firm hired to conduct the county’s compensation study, had recommended late last year.
But sometimes, it’s not always about the money.
Dollars can’t buy commitment to a department, particularly when it comes to law enforcement agencies.
Sure, there are some deputies who are leaving Richmond County due to the low salaries, but others are allegedly leaving because of some major problems within the department that don’t have anything to do with pay.
When law enforcement officers are involved, respect, honor and dignity go a long way, and some former deputies are saying that the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office is really lacking in those departments.
Specifically, there are two top members of Roundtree’s command staff that some deputies claim are out of line with verbal abuse and their treatment of county personnel.
And before everyone starts screaming that this Insider is being racist, these are two white members of the sheriff’s command staff.
But officers working under these two top cops fear putting anything on the record or making an official complaint because they don’t want to be seen as a “rat” within the agency.
They also worry that filing such a complaint would haunt their careers if they decide to look for employment within another local law enforcement agency.
It’s easier to pack up and leave than fight the system.
Some former officers have gone as far as to describe the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office as a “toxic workplace.”
If that’s the case, are people really surprised that several deputies are leaving the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office to join other local law enforcement agencies in Columbia County or Aiken? And how about those deputies who have left to join the Richmond County Marshal’s Office under the leadership of Marshal Ramone Lamkin?
It’s not for the money. In fact, some are even getting paid less.
It’s because deputies respect Lamkin and his leadership style.
They know that at the marshal’s office, they won’t face an abusive commander each day who’s not going to allow them to do their jobs and properly serve the community.
And apparently, Lamkin’s popularity has irritated some of the command staff within the sheriff’s office.
Earlier this year, when the marshal’s office tried to offer help in lowering crime, traffic fatalities and assisting with community outreach regularly performed by the sheriff’s office, the staff at the marshal’s office was allegedly told they were not needed.
Not needed? Really?
It’s completely absurd.
At this point, many of the veteran officers in the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office are simply trying to hold out until retirement.
In fact, some even have their countdown to retirement listed as their screensaver.
That’s the truth.
So, what are Richmond County citizens to do?
How do you put pressure on the sheriff to correct the behavior of his command staff if deputies aren’t willing to file complaints or publicly voice their concerns?
Some Augustans will immediately say, “Change it from the top.”
Get real. Roundtree was just re-elected in November 2016 with almost 74 percent of the vote. When he was originally elected in 2012, he became the first African-American sheriff in the office’s 230-year history.
Let’s face it, Roundtree isn’t going anywhere.
And everyone knows when most sheriffs are elected to that position, they stay there for at least 10 years, if not more.
For example, former Richmond County Sheriff Charlie Webster served as sheriff from 1984 until 2000. Then, former Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength followed in his footsteps and served as sheriff for the next 11 years.
Roundtree is still a fairly young sheriff and he has served only five years as sheriff so far.
Strength was 66 when he retired after serving three terms as sheriff, while Webster was 68 when he retired after serving four terms.
So, if there are actual problems within the sheriff’s office and its command staff, it’s up to Roundtree to properly address and correct those issues if deputies aren’t willing to file a formal complaint against these top officers.
It won’t be easy, but being sheriff is never easy.
If Roundtree really wants to retain more deputies and officers in his department, he might want to seriously talk to them about their work environment.
Money won’t buy loyalty, but treating officers with respect will go a long way.
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.”
On the same day that Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis posted a 15-minute video on Facebook defending his proposal to build the new $120 million arena at the former Regency Mall site, another prominent Augustan reached out to the mayor and offered him some advice.
Local developer and businessman Clay Boardman tried to explain to the mayor, in the most honest and sincere way possible, why he thought building the new arena at the Regency Mall location would be “disastrous.”
Boardman said he contacted the mayor because this issue is “too big to stand on the outside looking in and then waking up to an untenable outcome.”
For those Augustans who might have missed Boardman’s email to the mayor, here it is in its entirety.
It’s worth a read.
As a friend, I want to express my opinion and every other person’s opinion I have talked to, about your proposal. Your proposal is wrong, bad for the City, disastrous for the Arena, attempts to undermine the Authority and the powers granted to the Authority and is highly ill-advised. The Arena should stay downtown in either one of the two proposed locations. To lose N. Augusta, Aiken County and Columbia County spectators will doom the Arena. Moving it to your proposed location could bankrupt our community. Attendance will fall which will lead to the inability to obtain artists and the death spiral will begin.
There is no infrastructure in the way of bars, restaurants, hotels, attractions and other co-tenancy needs to support the success of an arena in this location. The demographics in that area will not support an arena and most people will choose not to patronize the arena.
There are alternate users for that piece of property once Cardinale decides to mark the property price to market price. I am very familiar with distressed mall pricing having underwritten many distressed malls throughout the eastern USA. As an example, we bought an operating, and cash-flowing, mall in NC recently that included 225,000 sf of retail and 32 acres of entitled land and paid $2.4mm for the property that once supported debt of nearly $50mm. The prices Cardinale are asking are absurd and insulting. To engage in talks with them for a land lease, tax abatements and improvements that they should have already made is ill advised and unfair to the tax-paying citizens of Augusta. To completely disregard the findings of a highly reputable study and good people on the Authority is insulting and yet another waste of an expensive study in Augusta. There are so many studies that have been bought, paid for and completely disregarded by the Mayor and Commission. They sit on a shelf unused as a testament to the poor leadership our City has endured over the years.
If I was in a leadership role in Columbia County, I would engage my own study in hopes of finding a suitable location there and sweep the rug out of Augusta generally and downtown and District 1 specifically. An arena in Columbia County would gut downtown and further shift the center of gravity and population to the west. Downtown, which has had much success over the last years in spite of little help from the public sector, will go down. Further development will slow, interest will wane and the Miller, Imperial, Bell and hotels and restaurants will suffer and stagnate and momentum will be lost.
We have waited over 40 years for downtown’s revival. We are now experiencing it and you propose, without going through the established process, to gut it and imperil our teetering credit rating. This is ill advised, poorly processed, poorly thought out and researched and simply the wrong decision. It is my hope that you will back off, let the process progress through the normal channels and respect our established form of government.
Thank you for reading.
There are many Augustans who feel exactly the same way. They couldn’t help but stand up and cheer when they read Boardman’s email to the mayor.
Mayor Davis, please listen to what Boardman is trying to tell you.
It’s time to step away from this deal.
It’s time to “move on,” as your friend and colleague, Commissioner Sammie Sias has said over and over again.
It’s time to keep the James Brown Arena downtown.
When it comes to requesting pay raises for his deputies, Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree isn’t playing around.
In fact, he’s taking his case to the streets.
Or at least the local airwaves.
Frequent listeners of local radio may have noticed an unusual ad that has been running the past few weeks in the Augusta market that was paid for by the sheriff.
This quick, 20-second ad about the 2018 budget might be brief, but it isn’t sitting well with several Augusta commissioners.
The ad begins by pointing out that the proposed 2018 budget does not include Roundtree’s request for salary increases for the sheriff’s deputies.
“The much-needed raises for law enforcement were not included in the 2018 budget. Shouldn’t these officers be equally compensated for the work they do?” an announcer in the ad asks. “Responding to over 370,000 service calls. Reducing violent crime over 30 percent and property crime over 40 percent. These officers are doing their job.”
But then the ad asks the public to take an active role in the 2018 budget process.
“So please ask your commissioners, what’s more important than the safety of our community?” the announcer asks. “Commissioners, you now have the opportunity to make things right.”
The ad ends with the message, “Paid for by Sheriff Richard Roundtree.”
After hearing the ad earlier this month, Augusta Commissioner Ben Hasan said he felt like the sheriff was taking the wrong approach in pushing for the salary increases.
“I fully support law enforcement, but I really think it’s an issue that the sheriff, himself, should have had a conversation directly with us,” Hasan said. “And, truth be told, the money is not there to give the kind of raises that he wants. We don’t have it. But I think it is a disservice the way he is going about running those ads. I think it is classless in a way.”
One of the ads that Hasan recently heard on the radio seemed to openly criticize City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson.
“To go after the administrator knowing that the administrator did not have the money in the budget and now to turn the ads towards the commissioners without even having a conversation with us, he’s acting like he’s too good to even have a conversation with all of the commissioners,” Hasan said of Roundtree. “I think it is a real disservice. He may say that he came before the commission previously, but that’s not quite the same. Anybody with political astuteness knows that’s not the same. He needs to have a conversation with us.”
Earlier this year, the sheriff went before commissioners and told them that he was serious about the need for salary increases for his deputies in 2018.
Roundtree stood before the commission this summer and asked for their “courage” to properly fund the sheriff’s office.
“You will note that I used the word courage, and I did so intentionally because history has shown me that many times when this body has attempted to do for one agency, that some have felt that you had to do for all,” Roundtree told the commission in August. “And while I respect and support every department in this government and wish that such a thing was possible, today, our financial reality says that it is not at this time.”
Roundtree insisted the sheriff’s office is facing a “critical need” to provide salaries for deputies that will not only help recruit new officers, but also retain them.
Richmond County deputies handle at least five times the number of service calls each year compared to surrounding law enforcement departments, including Columbia County, which is the next-largest sheriff’s office in the area, Roundtree said.
However, when it comes to compensation, Richmond County comes in dead last with the lowest pay for law enforcement officers in this region at a starting salary of about $34,800 a year.
“I think your sheriff’s officers need to be compensated for the job in which they’ve done and continue to do each day,” Roundtree said. “Since 2012, crime has gone down in Richmond County. That’s a fact.”
Roundtree presented the commission with two proposals.
The first proposal would be a 10 percent increase, across-the-board raise for deputies, which would cost the county approximately $2.8 million.
“That would raise your starting salary up to $40,000, which we are still below North Augusta, but North Augusta does fire and police,” Roundtree said, adding that North Augusta Public Safety officers’ starting salary is approximately $42,100 a year.
While the sheriff said he would be happy with the 10 percent, across-the-board raises, Roundtree would rather develop a salary plan that would provide incentives.
His second proposal would give every deputy an 8 percent pay increase, that would bring the starting salary up to $39,559.
Once the deputy stayed on with the department an additional two years, his or her salary would be increased to $42,600. That plan would cost the county $2.74 million to implement.
An annual salary of $42,600 would be considered a “good salary” for law enforcement in this region, Roundtree said.
But before City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson even released her proposal for the 2018 budget, she told commissioners that the county did not have the current revenue to support the sheriff’s request.
“I’m not sure how you do it without a tax increase,” Jackson told commissioners in August.
Therefore, it shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise to the sheriff when the proposed 2018 budget that was released this month didn’t include his total salary requests for deputies.
“This budget provides for $2.3 million for salary increases,” Jackson said, explaining that funding has been allocated for raises for employees paid through the general fund budget, which includes the sheriff’s deputies, but several other departments. “I would prefer for that to be $3 million to $4 million to cover everybody who is funded under the general fund.”
But the money is just not there, Jackson said.
In fact, Richmond County is suffering from a loss in revenue in several different areas, she said.
“This is the fourth budget process that I’ve been a part of. As you may recall, I came in at the tail end of 2014 as you all were deliberating the 2015 budget,” Jackson told the commission earlier this month. “Of those four budgets, I think this is the first time I am presenting you with one that I’m not sure that I like, myself.”
It is time for Augusta to begin to “adjust to new realities” in its annual budgets, she explained.
“It hit me as I went through our revenue sources, in particular, that we are going through a period of change, and we have got to adjust to what we would call ‘a new normal,’” Jackson said, adding that the electric franchise fees and tag ad valorem taxes have both decreased over the past few years in Richmond County. “Electric franchise fees have decreased pretty significantly. We were, two years ago, about $2 million more than what we are expected to get now. That’s probably something that we are going to have to get used to. That used to be a very reliable source of revenue, but it’s not going to be again.”
There is also a lot of uncertainty relating to the local option sales tax collections, she said.
“Last year, we experienced a $1.4 million decrease in that revenue source,” she said. “This year, it is looking a little bit more favorable, but it is not something that we can expect to grow every year as we had in previous years.”
Perhaps more disturbing than anything else is the projected growth in property taxes, she said.
“We are assuming a 1 percent growth rate in property taxes,” Jackson said. “Again, not what we would like it to be.”
Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams was shocked to hear of such a low growth in property taxes in Richmond County.
“With all of the construction we’ve been doing and apartment buildings going up, there is a lot of growth around here,” Williams said. “Are you saying only 1 percent?”
Jackson explained that it was a very conservative estimate from the tax commissioner’s office.
“That is the best projection that I have from the tax office right now,” she said. “That is a safe number, and we did try to budget conservatively on this.”
Jackson said the county also is expecting only a 1 percent growth in the local option sales tax collections.
Despite these obstacles, Jackson said she was determined that one of the main goals of the 2018 budget would be to “invest in ourselves,” she said.
She wants to make sure that the requests for at least some raises throughout the county’s workforce be addressed.
“In terms of how we placed the priority of people over (county) operations, basically we made the decision to hold operations (budgets) completely flat for every department with the exception of things that absolutely, positively have to happen,” Jackson said. “Things like the elections. We can’t tell the Board of Elections you can’t have that $330,000 because they have got to run elections this year. Another thing is, we have got to make our $250,000 payment on the cyber parking deck.”
But Jackson said she is determined to get more money into the county employees’ pockets.
Earlier this year, Jackson asked the commission to fund a compensation study to review whether there were inequities within the county’s pay scale.
Archer Company, the firm hired to conduct the compensation study, will present its final recommendations to the commission on Nov. 7.
“At that point, we will have the written document that shows us exactly what the results of the study are and their recommendations for how we move forward,” Jackson said.
Richmond County currently has a workforce of 2,842 people with a general fund budget of $153 million for 2017.
Jackson has suggested reducing the current workforce (mainly through the elimination of vacant positions in the county) to approximately 2,817 employees with a general fund budget of $155 million for 2018.
However, some of the vacant positions cannot be eliminated just to help reduce the budget, she said.
“Some of these vacancies are open because the jobs don’t pay enough,” Jackson said. “If we were to look at animal control right now and the number of vacancies that they have there, they can’t keep anybody in those positions because you can’t keep anybody for $21,000 a year to catch dogs.”
Jackson also pointed out that the sheriff’s office regularly has between 30 to 90 vacant positions at any given time, so each position must be individually evaluated in order to determine if it should be eliminated.
“Who is going to be in charge of prioritizing what’s needed and what’s not?” Augusta Commissioner Andrew Jefferson asked.
Jackson said she hoped that the commissioners would provide some guidance in that regard because the county will be dealing with vacant positions, lapsed salaries, the results of the compensation study, as well as requests for raises.
“Well, how are we going to do that?” Jefferson said, looking around at his colleagues. “We have lapsed salaries, we are going to do the compensation study, we have increases in some salaries and we are going to use the savings to fill some of the shortfalls? It seems like we are playing spin the bottle with the money.”
Jackson couldn’t deny that Jefferson accurately described many of the frustrations found within the proposed 2018 budget.
“That would illustrate why I’m not happy with what I just presented you, sir,” Jackson said. “You are absolutely right. That is what the game is.”
Following last week’s budget meeting, several commissioners said they realize the uphill battle they are facing with budget, particularly regarding the request for pay raises by the sheriff.
“I don’t think it is going to be possible. Not that we don’t need to give the deputies raises — we just don’t have the money,” Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams said. “We would have to raise taxes in order to give them the salary increases he’s asking for. I support them 100 percent, but we just don’t have the money to do it. And, if you look at public safety, you have to look at all of them. What about the fire department? What about the marshal’s department? We can’t just pick and choose.”
As far as Roundtree’s ads asking the public to call commissioners about the proposed budget, Williams believes the sheriff crossed the line.
“I thought that was very unprofessional in my opinion,” Williams said. “In one ad, he focused on the administrator. The ad he ran said the administrator needs to step up to the plate. She doesn’t make that decision. The commission makes that decision. But the sheriff focused on the administrator, and that put a bad taste in people’s mouths about her. I thought that was wrong. I thought that was insensitive, and I didn’t appreciate it at all.”
However, some commissioners felt that the sheriff was just doing what’s best for the deputies in his department.
“I think it is a good play,” said Augusta Commissioner Dennis Williams. “I think it’s a good way to prove your point.”
Augusta Commissioner Bill Fennoy agreed that the sheriff had every right to run the radio ads in support of his employees.
“I think he is doing a good job advocating for his deputies, and I don’t have a problem with that,” Fennoy said. “But I support the recommendation from our administrator.”
“I think the sheriff does a good job, and I think he is doing an excellent job trying to get everything he can for his deserving deputies, but we have 2,800 deserving employees. All of them do a great job, and all of them, as far as I’m concerned, are important.”
Augusta Commissioner Sean Frantom said his main priority is to help the administrator find realistic reductions to the budget so that the county can fund several necessary expenditures, such as increasing the salaries of the deputies and other county employees.
“I don’t know that I necessarily agree with the method that the sheriff is doing with the ads, but I understand it,” Frantom said. “And two wrongs don’t make a right, so I’m not going hold that against him. But I think that we’ve got to find the money, and I’m going to continue to dig into this budget and see what we can do to cut and make the tough decisions.”
“We need to look at lapsed salaries and we need to look at positions that maybe have not been filled for multiple years and let’s eliminate them to find the money we need.”
Clearly, the deputies deserve a raise, but the commission also has to be realistic about the other expenses the county is facing, Augusta Commissioner Andrew Jefferson said.
“They do deserve it, there is no doubt about that, but it is a matter of affordability,” Jefferson said. “At the same time, we have thousands of other employees that are employed by the city, and we need to make sure they are taken care of as well. So it is a difficult job.”
Augusta Commissioner Sammie Sias said both sides just need to stick to being professional and do what’s right for the county.
“We are doing everything that we can to accommodate the sheriff,” Sias said. “It may not be giving him everything he needs at this time and at this point, but we will take care of his men. We’ll do it.”
When Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal recently unveiled a 20 percent pay hike for state law enforcement officers, many Augusta commissioners knew what was coming: A request for salary increases for Richmond County deputies.
It’s not that the commissioners don’t want to give the deputies raises.
Almost all of the commissioners support such a move, but many don’t want to face the reality that an increase in law enforcement salaries will require a tax increase.
That’s something their constituents don’t want to hear.
But this week, Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree went before the Augusta Commission to make the case that, despite what it might mean for them politically, commissioners need to stand behind their deputies and increase their salaries.
“I’m asking for your consideration today, your discussion and eventually your courage to further invest in the future of your primary law enforcement agency,” Roundtree told the commissioners on Aug. 8. “You will note that I used the word courage and I did so intentionally because history has shown me that many times when this body has attempted to do for one agency that some have felt that you had to do for all. And while I respect and support every department in this government and wish that such a thing was possible today, our financial reality says that it is not at this time.”
Roundtree said the sheriff’s office is facing a “critical need” to provide salaries that will not only recruit new officers, but retain them because they face a very difficult job each and every day.
And, according to Roundtree, his department is getting the job done.
“There is always a difference between the perception of crime and actual crime,” Roundtree said, showing the commission the most recent crime statistics in Richmond County. “The reality of the fact is that since 2012, since we’ve taken office, your violent crime rate has dropped 36 percent in Richmond County. Your property crime has dropped 43 percent in Richmond County. These are real numbers as of 10 days ago.”
Those are statistics that the entire county “need to be proud of,” Roundtree said, adding that the public shouldn’t believe the rumors that Richmond County is not safe.
“Since 2012, crime has gone down in Richmond County,” Roundtree said. “That’s a fact.”
As a result of those improvements, Roundtree said his deputies deserve to be compensated because, right now, they are the lowest paid law enforcement officers in this region.
In a comparison of all six local law enforcement agencies, including the regional counties and North Augusta and Aiken Public Safety, Roundtree said Richmond County deputies handle five times the number of calls with 372,000 calls compared to the next largest sheriff’s office which is Columbia County.
But when it comes to compensation, Richmond County comes in dead last.
“You can see that Richmond County ranks last even though we have six times the call volume of the nearest sheriff’s office,” Roundtree said. “I think your sheriff’s officers need to be compensated for the job in which they’ve done and continued to do each day.”
Now, despite what some Augusta commissioners were fearing, Roundtree said he wasn’t expecting the county to provide his deputies with a 20 percent raise like the governor.
“I know that in our financial climate, the county in which we live in and the state in which we live in that it would impossible for me to come and ask you for a 20 percent increase.
I am not even going to entertain that,” Roundtree said. “I know we are not there and we can’t achieve that right now.” However, Roundtree had two proposals for commissioners. The first proposal would be a 10 percent increase, across the board, which would cost the county approximately $2.8 million.
“That would raise your starting salary up to $40,000, which we are still below North Augusta, but North Augusta does fire and police,” Roundtree said.
Meanwhile, Columbia County duties just got an additional raise in July and they are scheduled to get another one come Jan. 1, Roundtree said.
While the sheriff said he would be happy with the 10 percent, across-the-board raise, Roundtree would rather develop a salary plan that would provide incentives.
His second plan would give every deputy an 8 percent pay increase, that would bring the starting salary up to $39,559.
Once the deputy stayed on with the department an additional two years, his or her salary would be increased to $42,600. That plan would only cost the county $2.74 million to implement.
An annual salary of $42,600 would be considered a “good salary” for law enforcement in this region, Roundtree said. And that could allow for Richmond County to retain more deputies and build an even stronger department, he said. Because, despite what some people believe, many deputies want to stay with Richmond County, he said.
“We make a difference. We save lives in Richmond County,” Roundtree said. “My deputies deliver babies, they jump into the canal, the jump into the river, this is what your deputies have done and continue to do on a daily basis. That is our sale’s pitch. We make a difference.”
Several of the commissioners said the sheriff made a very good argument for the increases, but other commissioners such as Wayne Guilfoyle were very concerned about where the money for such raises would could from.
“If I was to do a tax increase, which is really not in myself to do one, but I would do one for the sheriff’s department,” Guilfoyle said.
However, he also felt the county should look at other employees who have been patiently waiting for a salary study to be completed in order to possibly receive an increase.
“But I am not opposed to getting you your money, sir,” Guilfoyle told the sheriff.
Guilfoyle then turned to City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson and asked her the question of the day.
“How can we satisfy the request of the sheriff’s department?” he asked.
Jackson didn’t hesitate to provide the commissioner with an honest answer.
“I’m not sure how you do it without a tax increase, sir,” she said.
Many commissioners didn’t like the sound of that.
The time has come for the Augusta Commission to start making some tough decisions.
Stay tuned. This year’s budget debate will be a doozy.
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.”
Things are look pretty bleak these days when it comes to the discussions surrounding a new James Brown Arena in downtown Augusta.
Just last year, there was a flurry of excitement regarding the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority’s impending announcement that they were going to select the future site of a new James Brown Arena.
But then, the announcement never really happened.
Just last week, Coliseum Authority Chairman Cedric Johnson admitted to The Augusta Chronicle that the authority was “somewhat naive to the process” and excitement over the announcement was a bit “premature.”
You can say that again.
More than two years ago, members of Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority began working toward building a new state-of-the-art arena.
A 2014 feasibility and economic impact study performed by AECOM, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm, stated that the James Brown Arena was suffering from “multiple physical deficiencies,” especially compared to modern arenas around the country.
As a result of its findings, AECOM recommended that the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority consider building a new 10,000-seat arena at a cost ranging between $90 million to $110 million.
Along with the 10,000 regular seats, the proposal for the new arena would include premium seating with 14 luxury suites, 10 loge boxes and 500 club seats.
In AECOM’s feasibility study, the consultant also listed several regional markets that Augusta is trying to compete against including arenas in Gwinnett County, Ga., North Charleston, S.C., Greenville, S.C. and Jacksonville, Fla.
While those markets are considered larger than the CSRA, AECOM’s study stated that Augusta is “well-located” for touring events, which promoters would find appealing.
But the truth of the matter is, Augusta has a current arena that is obsolete.
About 40 years ago, the James Brown Arena started out as part of a bigger vision to invigorate Augusta’s faltering downtown district.
Back in 1973, the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority first asked Chinese-born architect I.M. Pei’s New York firm to perform the design work and site selection for a new civic center.
While Pei is often referred to as the master of modern architecture, the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center — now known as the James Brown Arena — has never really been considered a work of art.
However, the more than 35-year-old arena has served the community well, hosting a variety of legendary artists over the years including KISS, Elton John, Motley Crue, Bon Jovi, Van Halen, Def Leppard and Alabama.
But, let’s face it, the old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be.
The James Brown Arena is too small, its concourses are tiny and uninviting, the seating is uncomfortable, there are no luxury boxes, there is no natural light, the concessions are embarrassing and the restrooms are unbearable.
Many people believe Augusta deserves a much more comfortable arena that can seat up to 10,000 people in order to attract larger shows, but the problem is, no one wants to pay for it.
A few years ago, the coliseum authority had originally asked the city for $15 million from the SPLOST 7 revenue, but the Augusta Commission authorized only $6 million in the package that was eventually approved by voters in 2015.
Now, the coliseum authority is forced to use some of that money to repair its aging arena.
But that’s like putting lipstick on a sick, aging pig.
Approximately $1.3 million is planned to be spent on upgrading the existing arena and Bell Auditorium, but the coliseum authority is still keeping about $4.5 million for land acquisition of the future site for the new arena.
Of course, the exact location for a new arena is still up in the air.
Also, the funding for a new $110 million arena is still up in the air.
So, let’s face it, the possibilities of a new arena is… still up in the air.