A day after a secret proposal to convert sections of Augusta’s mill district and downtown into campus expansion space for Georgia Regents University, Mayor Deke Copenhaver said he felt a sense of relief.
“I’ve been so excited about this,” he said. “For seven years, I’ve tried to find some sort of project that could really get the entire community excited, and I feel like this really does that.”
Revealed on Wednesday, the Augusta Regional Collaboration Project’s proposal calls for renovating two historic 500,000-square-foot textile mills into student housing and educational space for a “mills campus” on 50 acres, plus developing a “cultural campus” spread across several buildings downtown, including a new riverfront performing arts center.
Copenhaver, who founded the project last year with public and private funding, said the project remains in infancy, with no developed cost estimates, funding mechanism or approval from the university system.
Many at the state level have already been apprised of the plans, he said.
“I’ve met with the chancellor twice,” he said. “The governor has been briefed. But obviously there’s still a long way to go, with building a financing model, putting project costs on something concrete with numbers to put before the regents.”
Dayton Sherrouse, the executive director of the Augusta Canal Authority, said the proposal to restore Sibley and King mills had the full support of the authority, as long as the historic structures are maintained.
“This proposal is very consistent with our long-range goals on a variety of fronts,” Sherrouse said, because it addresses the authority’s long-term goals of preservation, conservation, education and economic development.
Sherrouse said he’d already given tours to 10 to 12 groups of university officials, engineers, architects, estimators and others before the proposal’s release.
The authority, which can issue bonds, oversaw the successful restoration of Enterprise Mill – less than half the size of Sibley and King – in 1993 after it sat vacant for years.
Matt Kwatinetz came to Augusta as part of the site selection team for the new Starbucks plant under construction but recently was hired as executive director of the mill project. He’ll be part of the team persuading the regents that the project is worthwhile.
“The theory is that it would grow top-line revenue and that net-net, they would be spending less,” Kwatinetz said.
According to a presentation by city officials Monday to GRU President Ricardo Azziz’s Cabinet, the project would be a public-private partnership involving local, state and private resources, but would be city-owned.
It would leverage about $250 million in ongoing city infrastructure investment, including $62 million in transportation sales tax funds dedicated to improvements on Broad and 15th streets, the $90 million Kroc Center that sits in the mill district and Augusta’s $37 million contribution of hotel-motel tax money to the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem redevelopment projects.
Five Augusta Commission members who attended Monday’s meeting with Azziz had only enthusiasm for the proposal, but District 1 Commissioner Bill Fennoy reminded them that the city has many other infrastructure needs.
“We have just agreed to spend $41 million in renovations for the municipal building, but we’ve got infrastructure issues that are being overlooked and they have not been addressed in a timely manner,” Fennoy said. He has a meeting planned with residents of Harrisburg, the former mill village, to get their feedback.
Commissioner Bill Lockett said the proposal likely would benefit Augusta-Richmond County as a whole and served as a show of support for the consolidation of Augusta State University and Georgia Health Sciences University, which many have resisted.
“I think the community really went overboard with this ‘Save the A,’ ” Lockett said. “They would have to come to the realization that $1.5 billion pumped into this community is worth more than just a name.”
Commissioner Grady Smith, who serves on the Augusta State University board of trustees, was enthusiastic.
“When you have these kinds of talks going on, what it means for the future is jobs, jobs, jobs, and that’s what we need in this area,” he said. “Let’s show the Board of Regents and Dr. Azziz and all of them, I know we’ve had some disagreements, but let’s all pull together and talk positive. It’ll really be a plus for years to come.”