Historic Augusta mills might become GRU campus expansion

City officials are pitching the idea of redeveloping two historic textile mills into educational and housing space for the expansion of the Georgia Regents University campus.

Mayor Deke Copenhaver said Wednesday that the Augusta Regional Collaboration Project developed the idea last year to restore the former Sibley and King mills, both of which are owned by Augusta Canal Authority.

“We presented this to Dr. Azziz and his cabinet on Monday and they seemed receptive,” Copenhaver said.

“Obviously this is in its infancy, and no decisions have been made.”

Copenhaver said the mills’ proximity to GRU’s medical campus and to 2,000 acres of permanently protected greenspace would make the area particularly attractive to students.

“Every 18-year-old with a mountain bike and a kayak would be very interested,” the mayor said.

Copenhaver, Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson and commissioners Mary Davis, Donnie Smith and Alvin Mason attended GRU president Ricardo Azziz’s cabinet meeting Monday for the concept presentation.

“This has the full support of the commission. ... That was encouraging,” said Davis, who has worked for both Augusta State University and Georgia Health Sciences University – now being consolidated by the Georgia Board of Regents into Georgia Regents University.

Davis called the “mills campus” concept a unique, innovative idea that will make Augusta a model for other institutions and helps accommodate the consolidated university’s growth by 6,000 or more students.

“People would be calling us from around the nation, and we’d be one of a kind,” she said.

Plus, it provides an ideal direction to expand near the Savannah River, downtown and the city’s existing downtown medical district, as the university’s “Summerville Campus” in her District 3 is landlocked, she said.

The two mill properties comprise some 1 million square feet of real estate located within the Augusta Canal National Heritage Area and adjacent to Au­gusta’s Salvation Army Kroc Center and the former mill villages of Harrisburg and West End.

Davis said the city is pitching the properties as potential research labs, classroom space and student housing for GRU students, and said several GRU officials appeared “excited” about the proposal Monday.

In a statement, Azziz said the project was subject to Regents’ approval but that he wanted to learn more.

“The scenarios presented today could potentially allow GRU to expand its footprint in Augusta and enhance our ability to provide quality education to our students in an economically and environmentally sustainable presence for the university and the city of Augusta,” Azziz said. “We have established a strong relationship with the city, and I look forward to hearing more about this potential collaboration.”

Augusta Commissioner Donnie Smith said the project was a game-changer for Augusta.

“I don’t think communities get the opportunity to do things of this nature very often,” Smith said. “It will change the face of our city and the economy of the downtown area for a long time to come.”

The project includes the creation of a GRU corridor from the university-owned Kroger shopping center on 15th Street, set for redevelopment, across the canal and left along Broad Street to the mill properties.

“We’ll connect that all together,” Smith said.

Canal Authority Chairman Richard Isdell said the authority viewed the project as an ideal use for the historic properties it has preserved for such purposes.

Isdell said several GRU and Regents officials already have toured the mill buildings and that the governor’s office also was aware of the proposal.

“GRU just doesn’t really have the campus now, it’s just downtown buildings, and this would give them that,” Isdell said. “It looks like a university. People would come here and think, golly, it’s an old school.”

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