”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” — “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens
Over the past year, Augusta has enjoyed several major announcements that have given the entire city reason to celebrate.
Whether it’s the construction of the new Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center on the banks of the Savannah River, the complete restoration of the Miller Theater, the continued growth and expansion of Fort Gordon or plans to build a $93 million mixed-use project at the old depot site on Reynolds Street, a lot is happening throughout Richmond County.
But along with these tremendous developments, Augusta still seems to find itself struggling with odd predicaments that leave many residents scratching their heads.
Such was the case this past week in two different areas of the county, both strangely relating to the future of two massive parking lots.
First, on the south side of Richmond County, the owners of the former Regency Mall site on Gordon Highway apparently decided to begin digging up the asphalt in the mall’s old parking lot.
Mounds of the torn-up asphalt were being pushed and piled off to the sides of the property.
The only problem was the mall’s owner, Cardinal Management, had not applied for any of the proper city permits prior to tearing up the parking lot.
As a result, the Augusta Engineering Department immediately halted the digging on the Regency Mall site.
Across town on Reynolds Street in downtown Augusta, all eyes were on another parking lot, but for an entirely different reason.
The Augusta Economic Development Authority has spent more than $500,000 to develop a fenced-in parking lot for Unisys employees at the city-owned depot property along Sixth and Reynolds streets.
The dilemma in this case is, that’s the exact spot for the future $93 million mixed-use project along the Savannah River. In November, the Augusta Commission unanimously approved a “development concept” for the massive project.
Along with approving the concept, commissioners also agreed to $14 million in Downtown Development Authority bonds to help finance the project.
According to the Downtown Development Authority, the $93 million project could break ground as soon as the next 60 days.
The reality is, when construction on the new development begins, a portion of the brand new Unisys parking lot on Reynolds Street will likely have to be removed.
Augusta Commissioner Ben Hasan said the entire situation seems comical, but city leaders aren’t laughing.
“Margaret Woodard from the Downtown Development Authority mentioned to us the $93 million project could begin as early as around April or May,” Hasan said, shaking his head. “The ground won’t even be hard before it is tore up again.”
But Hasan insists the city didn’t have any choice but to support the construction of the $500,000 parking lot for Unisys on the depot property because it was part of the company’s contractual agreement with the Augusta Economic Development Authority.
“The development authority promised to provide them with 500 parking spaces,” Hasan said. “Here, Unisys was already in the (former Fort Discovery) building along the river since 2016 and they needed those spaces.”
Augusta Commissioner Sean Frantom said it is frustrating because the city had no knowledge of the details of Augusta Economic Development Authority’s agreement with Unisys to provide parking.
“We don’t know everything the EDA does. They work these deals without us. They don’t come to us with these deals,” Frantom said.
“Obviously, I was surprised about the magnitude of what we had to do on the parking lot knowing that we are going to break ground soon on this new project. But it was just something the EDA had to do as the contractual agreement with Unisys is to provide that parking. Now, I don’t know why it took so long to get it implemented, though. That’s kind of the real question.”
Just this past week, the development authority approved cashing in $1.3 million worth of bank certificates of deposit to pay for the entire parking lot.
So the final price tag might be much higher than the estimated $500,000, Frantom said.
“It’s at least $500,000,” Frantom said. “At least.”
Walking around the newly paved parking lot with its iron gate and towering street lighting, Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams said the whole thing is mind-blowing.
“This was supposed to be temporary parking spaces, but it doesn’t look temporary to me,” Williams said. “The gate is really nice. The lighting is quality lighting, so the development authority spent $500,000 and it was a waste of money, in my opinion.”
About 90 days ago, Hasan said there was a meeting that included Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis Jr., Augusta Economic Development Authority members Henry Ingram and Butch Gallop Jr., City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson, a few Augusta commissioners and former Mayor Deke Copenhaver (who was serving as interim president of the development authority prior to Cal Wray being named the new president.)
During that meeting, the group had a phone interview with a representative from Unisys who made it clear that the parking lot needed to be developed for its employees as previously agreed, Hasan said.
As soon as the telephone conversation was over, Hasan said he turned to Henry Ingram of the development authority and insisted they needed to build the parking lot.
“I politely told him, ‘Y’all have to do this. If you all don’t do this, the city is going to pave that parking lot and we are going to send y’all the bill. We are going to pave this parking lot. We don’t have a choice,’” Hasan said. “Unisys just needed us to do what we promised them. It’s that simple. And, unfortunately, the city didn’t know all of this was happening. We didn’t know that Unisys was waiting on the development authority to keep their promise.”
Fortunately, the new $93 million project at the depot site will include the construction of a new parking deck, which will allow for Unisys to have future, permanent parking spaces, Hasan said.
“I know the fact that the parking lot is being built and torn up doesn’t sound like it makes sense, but we didn’t have any choice,” Hasan said. “We couldn’t afford not to do it.”
Augusta Commissioner Sammie Sias, who also attended that meeting several months ago with the development authority, said it’s imperative that anyone representing the city of Augusta honor their contractual agreements.
“It is very important for this government and any entities that are related to this government, including authorities and boards, that if you have a legal or written obligation to a client or anyone else, you have to fulfill what you are required to do,” Sias said. “So the bottom line is, that was a requirement that had to be fulfilled. It was way behind schedule. It may seem a little strange, but clients want what they’ve been promised or agreed to. It had to be done.”
Fortunately, Sias has been told the $93 million mixed-use development will be completed in phases.
“I look forward to the new project coming in, and the neat thing about it is, as they work their way from the Fifth Street Bridge to Sixth Street, that parking will still available for Unisys to use as they work from one end to the other,” Sias said. “That’s the plan, so there was never a bad time to do that parking lot. It was promised.”
Now, when it comes to the Regency Mall parking lot, Sias said that’s an entirely different situation.
Not only did the owners of the mall fail to submit the proper application for permits or any development plans to the city, but it appears that Cardinal Management might be attempting to remove the parking to reduce the property’s stormwater fees.
“I’m not sure why they were doing what they did, but it has been stated that if you change the surface from impervious to pervious, then that’s a part of what you don’t have to pay for the stormwater fee,” Sias said. “But I can’t answer to what they were doing. However, I can tell you as far as the stormwater fee part of it, tearing up the parking lot would have been advantageous to them.”
Representatives from Cardinal Management did not return calls seeking a comment.
While Sias said he was “disappointed” by Cardinal Management’s failure to get all the proper permits and an erosion control plan in place before starting any work on the property, he pointed out that the milling up of a portion of the parking lot did clear up one matter that has been promoted by those who want to build a new $120 million James Brown Arena on the former mall site.
“The tale that had been told the past couple of weeks is that there was concrete under that the mall parking lot and a base. Well, that concrete base was not there,” Sias said. “We didn’t expect it to be there, but there was a member of the Augusta Coliseum Authority who has been going around talking about the fact that the concrete base was there and, therefore, it would be less expensive to fix the parking lot at the former mall site.”
“We didn’t believe that, and we were right,” Sias added. “That was proven when they started milling up the asphalt. So, obviously, you cannot overlay a parking lot in that condition based on the way it was done and its age.”
Sias said the milling of the parking lot has also put a spotlight back on the fact that the mall’s owners haven’t paid any of the property’s stormwater fees.
After discovering there was a glitch in the billing system last summer, Sias said the city learned Cardinal Management hadn’t been billed for the mall property’s stormwater fees for almost a full year starting in 2016.
However, Sias said the city has been billing Cardinal Management since last summer more than $6,000 a month.
But Cardinal Management has yet to pay any of its stormwater bills.
“It is our position that nobody is exempt from the stormwater fee,” Sias said. “Now, we are not going to try to get that amount from them that they weren’t charged for because of that glitch. There was no water meter account to go with the mall property, so that’s how that mistake occurred. The mistake was on our end. But it has been corrected. So absolutely we expect them to pay the stormwater fee that they’ve been charged. They need to pay their bill.”
Frantom said he couldn’t agree more with Sias.
“The fact that they still haven’t paid the stormwater fee is definitely concerning,” he said. “To now know that they have around $50,000 still owed in stormwater fees that they haven’t paid is troubling. And now they are ripping up asphalt without the proper permits. I was shocked by that.”
When Hasan drove past the former Regency Mall property over a week ago, he was surprised to see movement on the land that has been abandoned for decades.
“I went there last Sunday and saw what I thought were mounds of dirt, and I was thinking, ‘Where are they going to spread all of that?’” Hasan said. “I didn’t realize that was asphalt that they had ground up. I couldn’t believe it when I found out. You really only hurt yourself by doing stuff without a permit.”
Williams, who has been a big proponent of building a James Brown Arena and a museum honoring the “Godfather of Soul” on the former Regency Mall property, was thoroughly disappointed to learn of Cardinal Management’s actions.
“I don’t like them going in there and trying to do something underhanded like that. That tells me they want it all,” Williams said. “I’m all for the James Brown Arena and a James Brown Museum in that area. I think the location is perfect. So, I thought they would be working with us to get something done, but instead they are going behind our backs. I totally disagree with their actions.”
It might be time to seriously discuss eminent domain regarding the Regency Mall property, Williams said, especially if Richmond County voters support the south Augusta site for the new arena in the non-binding question on the May 22 ballot.
“The mall owners thought they could get away with tearing up the parking lot and no one would notice or say anything,” Williams said. “If they are doing that kind of stuff, we might have to go ahead and do eminent domain and take the property and do something with it. We want to move ahead and do something with that property, but the owners are holding us back. That needs to change.”