Mills, cultural campus plans need $1.5 million to proceed

Advancing Augusta’s plans to develop a Mills and Cultural Campus in support of Georgia Regents University’s expansion will cost about $1.5 million, consultant Matt Kwatinetz told the Augusta Commission at a retreat Wednesday.

The city and the Augusta Regional Collaboration Project have proposed redeveloping two historic textile mills into campus space and other downtown real estate into cultural space, including a performing arts theater and the Artspace project, which launched its survey of artists’ needs Wednesday.

Kwatinetz, an urban economist hired to lead the project created by Mayor Deke Copenhaver, told commissioners at the retreat that the proposal is even larger than GRU’s expansion.

“If this project goes forward as we have proposed it, it is an enormous project,” Kwatinetz said. “Even if GRU expands to its full potential, it is still bigger than that.”

Expected to increase downtown population, attract more business, reduce real estate vacancy and increase the tax base, the proposal would require significant additional planning “to fully vet these projects and attract tenants grants and private partners,” Kwatinetz said in a letter to the commissioners in which he requested the money.

The city won’t be expected to fund the entire $1.5 million, Kwatinetz said, and he asked the city to provide $397,500, with the expectation the project can raise the rest from grants and private partners.

The $1.5 million covers the gathering of additional data on Sibley and King mills; the procurement of tax credit and financing sources; further study of any environmental remediation needed; an assessment of site infrastructure and utilities; and a search for potential tenants and users of the campuses and grant sources to fund the remainder of planning, he said.

Already, groups nationwide have reached out to the project with interest, including the National Development Council, which assists with initial due diligence on tax credits, grants and nonprofit financing, Kwatinetz said.

Georgia Power has expressed a desire to create a solar power installation at the site, “a great vote of confidence,” he said, “that will cost the city zero dollars.”

At their retreat, commissioners spoke highly of the project, part of a larger downtown and citywide development plan.

“When you’re talking about a university they like to call the ‘next great university,’ and I think it even goes beyond that,” Commissioner Alvin Mason said. “I’m certainly going to do whatever I can to help support this project.”

Comparing its impact to Savannah College of Art and Design’s downtown Savannah campus, Mason said Augusta’s proposal will have a positive impact on the entire city and even on the health of downtown residents.

Commissioner Mary Davis said she agreed “with everything Alvin just said.” Although GRU made no public acknowledgement of its interest in the project, Davis said she had heard nothing negative about it from the university or University System Board of Regents.

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Mill Campus Proposal by Augusta-Richmond County to Georgia Regents University (.pdf)

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