Brad Usry, president of Fat Man’s Mill Cafe, breaks his silence and says he is “strongly leaning toward not running”
By Stacey Eidson
People already refer to him as “Mr. Augusta.” After all, you don’t get much more Augustan than Brad Usry.
“My claim to fame is that I’ve never been out of Augusta, Georgia, for more than a week in my life,” said Usry, president of Fat Man’s Mill Cafe. “I have been here almost 55 years. I was born here. I went to high school and college here. I met my sweetheart here. We married, we made our home here and raised our boys here, so I am very much an Augustan. As much as everyone, as I like to say.
“But this is home to me. And there is nothing more precious than home.”
So, when people began discussing who would be the perfect candidate to fill the city’s top seat after Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver’s term expires in 2014, many residents immediately thought of Usry.
Considering his family’s history and their dedication to the Garden City for more than 70 years, Usry seemed to be a natural fit.
However, for a small group of influential community leaders, who also happen to be personal friends of Usry whom he “respects immensely,” the idea of him running for mayor was more than a silly pipe dream.
They wanted to make it a reality.
“It is really humbling for these guys to come in and talk to me about running for mayor,” said Usry, sitting in his restaurant’s office on Greene Street, located next to the city’s historic Enterprise Mill. “It would be an honor to represent the only city I really know.”
But after weeks and weeks of discussing the idea with his family and friends, Usry believes he is very close to making a decision.
It’s a decision that many people in Augusta won’t want to hear.
“I have not made an announcement to everyone, yet,” Usry said. “But I am skewed towards not running.”
It breaks his heart to have to tell people his decision, but Usry believes it is the right choice for now.
“I’m not saying that I won’t run in three years, but the timing right now is just not right,” said Usry, joking that making such a decision is like trying to decide when it’s time to have a baby. “There never seems to be the perfect time, but right now, I’m strongly leaning towards not running.”
The main reason is that Usry says he’s not prepared to divert so much of his attention from his restaurant just yet, so he can fully concentrate on being mayor of the Garden City.
“Anything I’ve ever done, I’ve given my undivided attention and time to,” Usry said, explaining that when he used to play basketball in college, his passion for the sport sometimes overshadowed his responsibilities. “When I played basketball as a kid, I would get so focused on basketball that my school work was affected.”
Usry was worried if he agreed to run for office and ended up winning, he would not be able to be the full-time mayor that the city deserves.
“I seriously looked at it, but I realized that I can’t concentrate on this business and still focus on being mayor,” he said. “If I was mayor, I would need to worry about what’s going on in downtown, in south Augusta, in west Augusta, in east Augusta and all of the surrounding communities.”
As soon as some of his friends and loyal patrons of his restaurant learn that he is seriously considering not running for mayor, Usry acknowledges that he will probably have a lot of folks stopping by to try and convince him to change his mind.
“You never say never, but I think my mind is made up for now,” Usry said. “Becoming mayor is a commitment and I’m not sure, with the other things that are going on in my business, that I can give the kind of commitment that I personally believe I would need to give in order to do a good job. And I would be doing the citizens of Augusta a huge disservice if they vote for me and I could give only 60 percent of my effort.”
But one day, Usry hopes he will be able to make that commitment and serve the city he loves.
“If I should ever run for political office like mayor, it’s not about being mayor,” he said. “It’s about working with other people to make Augusta a better place to live, to visit and to establish businesses. That’s what it is all about.”
When asked if Usry was also discouraged by the Augusta Commission’s inability to work together sometimes, he admitted that also played a factor in his decision.
“If I said, ‘No,’ you would know I was lying,” Usry said, smiling. “That is a big part of it. And, I’ll tell you, I think Deke (Copenhaver) has done a tremendous job. With no vote and no veto power and trying to build a network and bridge the gaps down there, it is tough. Really tough. And I just think he has done a tremendous job and he is a great representative for this town.”
If the entire Augusta Commission could simply get beyond their own egos and concentrate on the city’s needs, Usry believes the Garden City would be unstoppable.
“Right now, I think we are on treadmill. We are just chasing our tails,” Usry said. “I think it is because a lot of people have their own agendas, instead of what’s best for Augusta. The key is, everybody can take care of their own agendas, but they need to look at the big picture, too, and see where it fits into the big picture.
“They have to make sure their agenda is not some selfish motive, because, if that is the case, really for the whole of Augusta, it doesn’t have a place here.”
One of the aspects of the local government that bothers Usry the most is the fact the Augusta commissioners don’t seem to mind airing the city’s dirty laundry out in front of the world.
“The thing that drives me crazy is the meeting process,” Usry said. “It seems like there is a lot of bickering going on in the meetings, when, in my mind, and in the business world, you get those kinds of things ironed out before a meeting.
“That way, when you get to that point of the meeting, there is some civility to it. You make your decisions, you vote and you move on.”
The more the Augusta Commission argues, the less surrounding local leaders from Aiken and Columbia counties will want to collaborate with Richmond County.
“We have so many blessings and so many resources in this area and, instead of getting along, we are all trying to keep our own little piece of the pie,” Usry said. “Between Columbia County, Aiken County and Richmond County, if we could really just establish ourselves together, everybody would benefit.”
Of course, you also can’t talk about problems facing Augusta’s government without discussing the city’s race relations, Usry said.
“The elephant in the room is race,” Usry said, adding that he has spent his entire life surrounded by both white and black Augustans and strongly embraces the diversity across the city. “I just think in simplistic terms: It is not about black Augusta or white Augusta. It’s about black and white Augusta.”
The same is true about the territorial feud that frequently rears its ugly head in Richmond County, Usry said.
“It’s not about downtown or south Augusta and it’s not about west Augusta or east Augusta. It’s about a better Augusta,” he said, adding that if one area of the city gets an incredible opportunity such as a new industry or new tourist attraction, the entire county will benefit.
But the Augusta Commission must be realistic about what may or may not be successful in different areas throughout the county, he said.
“If you believe you are going to establish a luxury neighborhood in south Augusta, you are probably not right,” Usry said. “But you can establish some really unbelievable industry in south Augusta with some land that is available. Hell ya, you can. And, you know what? Then, everybody benefits. Because with that new industry, Columbia County is going to be selling houses for the executives coming in. That’s the reality.”
The same goes for incredible events such as the Ironman 70.3 competition held this past weekend in Augusta, Usry said. Many people don’t realize it is the largest Half-Ironman event in the world right here in the Garden City, he said.
“People think that the sports or cultural events like that, that go on downtown, don’t help anybody but those businesses downtown,” Usry said. “That’s not true. This Ironman event had some 3,500 athletes participating and at least another 3,500 family members there supporting them. Let’s say at least half of those were from out of town.”
If you add together the amount each athlete and their family members spent on food, lodging and entertainment this past weekend, the result is a great deal of money for the entire area, Usry said.
In fact, the Augusta Sports Council estimates the triathlon brings in approximately $4 million in direct visitor spending.
“All that money is left here in Augusta to move around amongst us,” Usry said. “Everybody gets a little piece of it at some point and time. So, what benefits one part of the county, benefits us all.”
While Augusta voters will still have a number of mayoral candidates to choose from in next year’s election even if Usry decides not to run, Usry says he isn’t ready to endorse any of the current candidates.
In fact, Usry hopes that one of his supporters who urged him to run for mayor might reconsider and run for the position himself. But Usry would not comment on who he has in mind.
So far, those individuals who have announced plans to run for mayor include state Sen. Hardie Davis, Augusta Commissioner Alvin Mason, former mayoral candidate Helen Blocker-Adams, business owner Charles Cummings and former Augusta Commissioner Andy Cheek.
Commissioners Marion Williams and Joe Jackson have also discussed throwing their hats in the ring.
Instead of running for mayor, Usry said he may concentrate on smaller public-private projects that will improve the entire community.
“One of my close friends told me, ‘You know what all Augustans should do? Pick one thing that you are passionate about right now and, to heck with the politics,’” Usry said. “He said, ‘Get a committee together or a group together and let’s go out to that one problem and fix it. You know, we may need the commission’s help, but let’s get the solution in hand and take it to the commission where it makes so much sense that they can’t say no.’
“That may be a better battle for me, right now. One thing at a time is what the citizens need to do.”
A perfect example is Augusta businessman Barry Storey’s efforts to improve the city’s entryways and beautify the area.
Storey is involved in a public-private partnership where the city contributes some sales-tax revenue for the installation of irrigation equipment in the gateways and Storey provides the landscaping. An example of Storey’s efforts is the entryway located along Walton Way and St. Sebastian Way.
“Basically, Barry got so mad, he said, ‘To heck with it. I’ll do it myself,’” Usry said. “And he used very little public money. He just took it upon himself to make a difference and improve our city’s gateways. And he knows he has a long way to go, but he ain’t about to stop.”
Along with the importance of his family business, which began back in the mid 1940s, another factor that weighed heavily on Usry’s mind was his mother’s political legacy and her strong role in the community.
His mother, Carolyn Usry, served on the Augusta City Council for more than 14 years and was known as one of the smartest and hardest-working business leaders in the Garden City.
For more than 50 years, Carolyn Usry worked tirelessly at Fatsville Chow and Fat Man’s Forest, the businesses she and her husband, Horace “Fat Man” Usry, owned along Laney-Walker Boulevard near Paine College.
“Basically, I think the entrepreneurship of my family kind of all started with my dad’s dad, who was ‘Dumb John,’” Brad Usry said. “Dumb John made syrup out on the south side of town. It’s now Barton Chapel and Highway 1. He also had a bar and saloon there called Dumb John’s. I don’t know the deep history of it, I just know it was a watering hole that all the guys went to and got their wives mad at them.”
But Dumb John also opened a store by Paine College called Sanitary Curb Market, Brad Usry said.
“My father purchased that and changed it to Fat Man’s Corner,” Brad Usry said. “And my parents lived in the back of the store. Our family calls it the grocery store, but that was their home.”
The Fat Man’s Corner thrived for years until it eventually evolved into one of Augusta’s landmarks, Fat Man’s Forest, a seasonal store that included everything from Christmas trees to Halloween decorations to costume rentals.
But back when Fat Man’s Corner was still thriving, Brad Usry’s father began complaining of pain, but the doctors told him there was nothing medically wrong with him.
“If it happened today, he probably would have been fine,” Brad Usry said. “He complained and complained and the doctor kept saying, ‘You are crazy. There is nothing wrong with you.’ But, in the meantime, the cancer was growing. Well, by the time they said, ‘Oh, you have cancer,’ he went to Emory to be treated and it was like five days later, he was gone.”
Brad Usry was only 16 and still a junior in high school, but that’s when he really began to see the incredible strength inside his mother.
“My mom was extremely strong and an unbelievable businesswoman who just had a good head on her shoulders,” Brad Usry said, smiling. “She didn’t miss a beat. The business kept growing under her leadership. My sister and her husband came into the business just before my dad passed, so they were really involved and that helped.”
Once Brad Usry joined the family business, his mother began to explore other interests including running for office.
“She provided a real service to the community and, just like me, she loved Augusta with all her heart,” Brad Usry said. “She always considered what was best for Augusta and used common sense. She was fiscally responsible and she got really frustrated when she saw money being spent that really didn’t need to be spent.”
Brad Usry remembers that his mother’s political life was not always easy on her.
“The local media used to jump all over her,” he said. “But, at the end of the day, she did what was best for entire city and didn’t worry about the criticism.”
Carolyn Usry, who passed away in 2007, was actually approached by several supporters in the community to run for city council in the 1980s. Ironically, it was extremely similar to how her son was recently approached to run for mayor this year.
“She was asked to run,” Brad Usry said, smiling as he paused a moment. “Yeah. It is an honor to be thought of like that. If I could wear my mother’s shoes, I think that would be pretty cool. She was my hero. It was a tough call.”
Who will become Augusta’s next mayor?
Brad Usry, president of Fat Man’s Mill Cafe, breaks his silence and says he is “strongly leaning toward not running”