As the 66-year-old Ohio native prepares to hand the reins to successor and former Wake County, N.C., planning director Melanie Wilson on Sept. 30, he sat down to share his thoughts on retirement, his professional triumphs and disappointments, and how Augusta’s development has changed.
What made you decide to retire?
“It was not a financial decision. I knew I could do it several years ago. I kind of wanted to, and I kind of didn’t, because I enjoy what I do. I enjoy dealing with people and I enjoy dealing with the kind of problems we’ve got. I hate to just throw that away, but at the same time I want some time for myself. … I was listening to a show the other day about Jimmy Johnson, the professional football coach, and he just walked away from it one day and said at one point in your life, it’s about quality time left. That’s kind of the epiphany I had about six months ago. One day it just seemed like this is the right thing to do.”
How have things changed over the course of your career?
“Through learning experiences, federal regulations and state regulatory processes, it’s a lot more difficult to do development now. We had some tremendous problems with stormwater, traffic access and various other things that were created by our zeal to attract development to Richmond County. The theory back in the day was, ‘Don’t pressure any developer to do anything so that we’ll get all this tax revenue out of it.’ We learned that’s not a good idea. We still have to worry about stormwater and other environmental implications of development and traffic. We are stronger as planners now than we were back in the ’70s and early ’80s, when things started to evolve. Not to say that we’re not still pro-development, because we are, but I think we get a lot cleaner product now.”
How has the nature of Augusta’s development shifted?
“When I came here, we had just gone through a major industrial expansion. We went through sort of a down period as far as industrial development, and now I think we’re doing really well. We’ve attracted Rockwood and Starbucks. You try to chase the types of development that create other jobs, which are industry, recreation, tourism and government. If you can get them, they create great retail and service jobs. A lot of the office and retail development has shifted to Columbia County. We realize that. They’re following the rooftops that are already out there now. It’s almost all in-fill here within existing areas, not necessarily demolition and reconstruction. It’s areas … that were jumped over when the initial wave of development occurred. Those are the prime places now. Some of it’s redevelopment, but most of it is leapfrogged properties.”
How has business downtown changed?
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the ear of the city council back when we saw the handwriting on the wall with these malls (Augusta Mall and Regency Mall). They waited too late and they reacted to some outside influence and did some things that really didn’t make a lot of difference. They parked in the middle of the street, that will always be questioned whether that’s a good idea. Some of the other projects were sort of knee-jerk reactions … . After those were done and things didn’t change a lot, they started taking a more proactive approach. They started the facade-grant program, which rehabilitated a bunch of buildings downtown. I was the community development director as well as the planning director for a while. We must have done close to 100 buildings downtown on Broad Street and surround(ing) streets (from 1985-96). We went through the state historic preservation office to make that work. Then you kind of got a new wave of entrepreneurs that took a new look at downtown. They realized that it’s never going to be a general retail location again. You’re never going to have department stores down there again. It is prime for the restaurants, bars and the speciality retail. That’s what has done fairly well down there.”
What are your professional high and low points?
“High point, turning the corner to get reasonable regulatory processes in place so that development didn’t do more damage than it did good. I think we’ve got a good balance here of developer friendly, but community consciousness that would work well for anybody. Certain places are oriented more one way than the other. I think we’ve struck a good balance here.
Low point, we had some planning commissioners and commissioners (in the 1980s) that thought multi-family development in Harrisburg would stimulate medical students to move into that area and improve the conditions there. I questioned it, but I didn’t jump up and down to say you’re making a huge mistake. I think it turned out to be a huge mistake. I probably wasn’t forceful enough about that. The duplexes and the rental properties in Harrisburg are killing it right now, and I take part in that.”
What are your hopes for Augusta’s future development?
“Everybody wants clean industry. Everybody wants high-tech, white-collar jobs and clean-production jobs. We’d love to have Silicon Valley relocate here. The reality is that we’ve got some of that in the form of customer service centers. It’s not smokestacks and production workers, but it’s pretty high-quality. We’d like to get more of that. We’re about to get tremendous buildup at Fort Gordon, with the (National Security Agency) and other security-related functions, that’s going to really drive this economy in the future. We’d like to have more clean, heavy industry out in areas designated for that, but that’s not what people chase today. That’s not where the priority is. The medical community is one of those basic industries that for every job that comes in here to the medical complex, you probably get three jobs created in the private sector to support it. That’s the kind of thing we’re really looking for.”
What are your plans for retirement?
“I’m looking forward to not having to get up on Monday mornings and go to work. It seemed like the weekends got compressed, and I didn’t have time to do all the things I wanted to do. I’m looking forward to not being rushed. I like to hunt and fish. I have a farm (in Burke County) that I like to piddle with. I’ve got some offers to do consulting work … But the first thing I’m going to do is just learn to back off from the rat race … I’m going to learn to piddle. I’ve got seven grandchildren, so I’ll spend more time with them.”