Scuttlebiz: Augusta is “cool,” but could be cooler

Let’s take a little trip in the wayback machine to revisit a topic with present-day relevance: Augusta’s “cool” factor. Whoooooosh!

 

The date: June 6, 2011.

The scene: The Rotary Club of Augusta’s weekly meeting; guest speaker Dr. Ricardo Azziz, president of Georgia Health Sciences University (now Augusta University), is giving a talk about recruiting world-class talent to metro Augusta, specifically health care professionals and biomedical researchers.

He makes the comment that top academic types appreciate “the arts, the coolness, the quality of life, the mental stimulation. We’ve got to become cool.”

Now that your memory is refreshed, lets set the dial back to 2017. Whooooooosh!

You’ll recall the “cool” comment caused quite a commotion in the community because it intimated the city was, well, not cool. It didn’t help matters that Azziz – despite his many positive leadership qualities – was a tad pompous and ran roughshod over the community like a panzer over a jelly doughnut.

But you know what? In that particular instance, he was right on the money. His statement was prescient in 2011 – it was a full two years before “cyber” became a part of the local lexicon – and it still holds up six years later.

Augusta, in fact, does need to be “cool” – or at least cooler – to attract, retain and develop the highly skilled professionals who power the modern innovation-based economy.

Now, before you run me out of town on a rail, let me say that I genuinely like Augusta. And I happen to think it’s pretty cool. But I’m somewhat easy to please, having grown up in a town so small it didn’t even have traffic lights, so I’m not the hip brainiac that city leaders are trying to attract.

The people they want are the kinds of people who can work in the city’s university research labs, its nuclear installations and its burgeoning cyber industry – the kind of folks with skills so in demand that they can live just about anywhere they want.

So let’s face it, to a young professional living in Boston, Seattle, San Francisco or Washington, D.C. – or even a halfway hip midsize market such as Huntsville, Ala., or Greenville, S.C. – Augusta’s cool quotient is somewhat lacking, especially in its downtown, the place where coolness is practically mandatory.

Fortunately, Augusta and its surrounding political subdivisions seem to be pulling in the right direction, and are doing so at unprecedented speed.

In the next few years, several major public-private plans – ranging from streetscape beautifications and new public art exhibits to the construction of a riverfront destination center and a renovated performing arts venue – aim to make the urban core a much “cooler” place. So, too, will a bevy of private-sector investments ranging from new retail shops and restaurants to hotels and residential ­buildings.

You can see the changes in the way tourism and economic development officials are retooling their marketing. They’re downplaying the region as a golf and retirement mecca and promoting “cool” things, such as its nightlife, cultural attractions and recreational amenities. Images of wine-sipping baby boomers have been replaced by microbrew-drinking millennials with tattoos, piercings and scruffy facial hair.

The overarching message: Augusta is youthful, cosmopolitan and hip – the kind of place where the so-called “creative class” who drive America’s innovation-based economy can live, work and play at a low cost and at a high quality.

Of course, not everyone is fully on board with Augusta’s evolving image.

Some people are a little miffed we’re heaping so much attention and investment on an already overcoddled demographic that is prone to panic without Wi-Fi and has an aversion to neckties. Others just don’t like the direction Augusta’s downtown revitalization has taken. For example, I spoke several months ago with a local senior citizen who lamented decades past when she could do all her shopping at Broad Street department stores, then take the family to the latest movies at the Imperial Theatre and get ice cream cones at Woolworth’s.

I actually felt sorry to tell her that downtown is gone forever, and not just in Augusta. Culture and entertainment is the chief form of commerce in most central business districts. As downtown developer Bryan Haltermann mentioned to me this past week: “Restaurants are the new department stores.”

Now back to what’s “cool.” It’s an esoteric concept, but most people would probably say a community is either cool or it’s not. Azziz – the man who gave us the very uncool “Georgia Regents University” name – seemed to believe Augusta was uncool but had the potential to become cool. Sort of like those movies where the geeky girl that nobody notices suddenly becomes prom queen when she puts on makeup and switches to contacts.

Given the amount of interest civic leaders have in giving this region a makeover, they must also believe Augusta has some coolness just under the surface.

Your opinion may vary. But then again, you might not be the target market.

SPEAKING OF COOL: The metro area’s hot new make-your-own-pizza restaurant, Your Pie, isn’t in downtown Augusta, but it’s pretty darn close.

The new eatery located just across the river in North Augusta at 434 Georgia Ave., Suite 101, has its grand opening set for May 12 at 11 a.m. But it’s having a “soft opening” from May 8-10, with the proceeds going to Child Enrichment Inc., the local charity for abused children.

The “Dine and Donate” event will introduce locals to the Athens-based chain’s three types of crust, eight types of sauces, nine kinds of cheese and 34 toppings. Owned by franchisee Patrick Landon, the restaurant is in the spot that housed the Ming Yat Chinese restaurant for 35 years before it was redeveloped by owners Chris and Melody Garrison.

The couple says they envision as many as a half-dozen other businesses in the space, which longtime residents might remember as the old Colonial/Big Star grocery store. To see whether any spots are left at the limited-seating opening event, register at bit.ly/2pouZtK.

NO DINNER DINER: One of the largest and fastest-growing daytime-only restaurant concepts has Augusta on its radar. First Watch, which specializes in breakfast, brunch and lunch, now has a franchise territory stretching from Augusta to Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C.

The 200-restaurant chain’s first location in the region will be in Bluffton, S.C., according to franchisee owner Ryan Hendrix, a partner in RAS LLC along with Andrew Brooks and Steven Hendrix. The partners already operate eight Jersey Mike’s Subs restaurants in Charleston and Chattanooga, Tenn., and plan to channel their efforts into developing the First Watch brand, which offers traditional favorites, such as pancakes and omelets, as well as specialty items such as avocado toast and “Quinoa Power Bowls,” is still in the process of scouting local real estate, Hendrix said.

“We are very excited to get going with the development,” he said.

MORE BREAKFAST: Site prep work for a new IHOP restaurant in North Augusta was put out for bid this past week. The flapjack-centric establishment will be in a 4,100-square-foot space at 1248 Knox Ave., right next door to, interestingly, a 3,500-square-foot Aspen Dental practice. The office will be the 550-unit chain’s third in the metro area, and it will be the fourth IHOP in the Augusta-Aiken area.

I’VE GOT A BEEF: Got a hankerin’ for the kind of food you can wash down with a cold one? You might want to plan your calendar accordingly for The Augusta Chronicle’s 2nd annual Burgers &Beer Week contest June 15-25. That’s when some of Augusta’s top local restaurants go pit their best specialty burger creations against each other for a summer’s worth of bragging rights.

The contest, sponsored by Augusta’s River Watch Brewery and FPL Food LLC, was won last year by Village Deli’s “Deli Deluxe Brisket Burger.” Who will win this year? You’ll have to try the sammiches yourself and vote through the Chronicle’s Facebook page. Share your photos with the hashtag #augustaburgersandbeer and you’ll get put in the drawing for several hundred dollars worth of gift cards.

Burgers, beer and bucks? I dare you to say no to that.

THE NOTORIOUS J-O-B: Want another chance to win a gift card? Go to Virginia College’s Career Fair May 18 from 1-4 p.m. at the campus at 2807 Wylds Road. It’s free, open to the public and you might just win a Chromebook and an Amazon gift card. Just call (706) 288-2500 to register before you go.

AU Medical Center, the city of Augusta, TJ Maxx, Unisys and Walgreen’s will be among the companies represented.

MORE ON JOBS: You might have heard Augusta University’s Cyber Institute and Master of Public Administration program are in the midst of the city’s first-ever cyber workforce study. The university started sending out the email-based survey this past week, so if you employ cyber-related IT professionals and you didn’t get a survey, ask MPA Program Director William Hatcher for one at wihatcher@augusta.edu.

The survey will attempt to elucidate what area employers are most looking for to help fill their share of the forecasted 6 million cybersecurity jobs that will be needed globally by 2019.

Hatcher &Co. already has determined the Augusta metro area employs 2,880 people in the cyber realm, or about 1.4 percent of the workforce, with an average salary of $76,500. If you include active-duty military jobs (which are generally excluded from federal labor statistics, much to our local chagrin) the number is more like 12,716, or about 5.3 percent of the workforce.

BRAC? BRING IT ON: AU, by the way, says nearly four in 10 jobs at Fort Gordon are directly related to cybersecurity. That’s one of the reasons why the installation is pretty much insulated from future military cutbacks under Washington’s on-again off-again Base Realignment and Closure initiative. Fort Gordon’s 21st century cyberwarfare missions, and the billions of dollars getting pumped into its military intelligence and national security facilities, ensures it isn’t going anywhere but up.

“If we ever do go into another BRAC cycle, we have the ability to actually absorb folks that maybe transfer in from other installations,” Fort Gordon Garrison Commander Col. Todd Turner told the board of the Georgia Department of Economic Development during its meeting in Augusta on Wednesday.

The next BRAC could be sooner than you think. U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican and senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, was quoted by the Dayton Daily News as saying the next round could start in 2020.

Don’t be surprised if metro Augusta’s biggest employer gets bigger. A lot bigger.

LITTLE BIG BANK: Pass by the Evans Trade Center on Columbia Industrial Boulevard and you’ll see a big sign saying that commercial financing for the adjacent retail strip center is being provided by First State Bank (it’s brand/logo is “Firstate”).

If you’ve never heard of them, it could mean you don’t spend much time in Wrens, Ga., where they’re based, or in Warrenton, Ga., where they just opened a branch office several weeks ago. The bank has been around since 1964 but has largely kept to the rural markets of Wrens, Louisville and Americus. It would be interesting to see it establish a bigger footprint in urban and suburban parts of Augusta.

DISAPPEARING BANK ACT: You probably noticed the former Capitol City Bank &Trust branch on the 1200 block of Broad Street is no more. That’s because the developers of the Hyatt House are plowing ahead with construction of the 125-room hotel, which will cover most of the 1-acre parcel at 1268 Broad St.

Augusta real estate developer John Engler and design firm Dickinson Architects recently released a new artist rendering of the multi-story upscale hotel – and it’s a doozy.

The blend of classic Southern red brick with a modernist glass facade and stylized Hyatt logo looks positively swanky.

It’s the best thing to hit upper Broad since, well, I don’t know. The renovation of the old city fire department into the Marbury Center?

The new Augusta Convention &Visitors Bureau office at 1010 Broad St. ought to be pretty impressive, too, when it’s completed early next year. There’s just so much “cool” stuff going on, isn’t there?

ON A FINAL NOTE: If you want to learn more about Augusta’s hotels of yesteryear, pop on down to the Augusta Museum of History’s new exhibition,”Southern Hospitality, Historic Hotels of Augusta,” which opens May 11. Curated by collection assistant Cari Warren, the exhibit features photos and artifacts from hotels such as The Albion, The Arlington, The Forrest-Ricker, The Planter’s, The Richmond, The Bon Air and The Partridge Inn.

It’s a trip back to the early 20th century, when Augusta was the place where people could find the best winter climate and the South’s most hospitable people. Until they built the railroad to Florida.

Hey, at least we don’t have to worry about hurricanes.

 

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3352 or damon.cline@augustachronicle.com.

 

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