Georgia Health Sciences University President Ricardo Azziz and others think the city has slim cool offerings.
Even if it does exude some coolness, as downtown business owners and supporters believe, some GHSU students said they would know the library walls better than the local scene.
Speaking Monday to the Rotary Club of Augusta, Azziz said Augusta lacks a creative, vibrant culture and lifestyle that many potential research recruits desire.
Sarah Beth Eriksen, 24, a third-year GHSU medical student, said students are more concerned with studying than looking for "distractions."
"The young culture here is all very transient," Eriksen said. "It's all people who come in for school and leave."
The downtown lifestyle was a factor in Eriksen's decision to move back to Greenville, S.C., where she attended college.
"Augusta is what Greenville was 15 years ago before they got their act together," she said.
Downtown Greenville has a cluster of restaurants, shops, businesses and arts centers along its river bank and Main Street.
Augusta could benefit from a proactive city council interested in reinvigorating downtown, Eriksen said.
Kapil Chaudhary, 29, said Augusta lags behind Birmingham, Ala., and other cities in the region he has visited.
A GHSU doctoral candidate originally from India and living in Augusta for almost two years, Chaudhary said he is eager to finish school. Chaudhary wouldn't stay in Augusta as a researcher, he said.
Medical University of South Carolina spokeswoman Heather Woolwine said Charleston, S.C., has a slight edge in terms of lifestyle. Many recruiters say the medical school's location was a factor in many faculty and student decisions, Woolwine said.
Chad Hembree, 32, of Newnan, Ga., chose Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C., 10 years ago over Medical College of Georgia for academic reasons.
The city lifestyle was not a significant decision-maker, Hembree said.
But Hembree said the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area does offer some cool downtown development for living, shopping, eating, sports and the arts.
"Durham has nooks and crannies that are nice, but it certainly has a long way to go," he said.
A combination of students, young professionals, doctors and researchers visit the American Tobacco District, a renovated tobacco warehouse adjacent to the city's baseball stadium and performing arts center, Hembree said.
"There's a very vibrant community of higher education and with that comes a lot of cultural events," he said.
Azziz said Augusta doesn't compare well to cities including Charleston and Durham that have worked to make walkable and liveable communities.
Augustans seem to believe a myth that students and researchers are transient people, Azziz said.
"Having a culture that is attractive to productive individuals in their younger years translates to longer retention rates," Azziz said. "That is why top liveable communities are academic communities," he said.
Dr. Ben Casella, 30, said Augusta needs visionaries such as Azziz to capitalize on downtown real estate.
"It takes people coming from the outside looking in," said Casella, an optometrist on Broad Street. Casella is also a member of Historic Augusta Inc. and Downtown Augusta Alliance.
"We are a cool city. You just have to be more appealing on the surface," Casella said.
Downtown Augusta needs less vacant buildings between each good business, he said. Young people need to put forth effort to find out the good things downtown offers, Casella said.
The key is picking up periodicals with entertainment calendars to know what's going on, he said.
Coco Rubio, the owner of Soul Bar and Sky City in downtown Augusta, said "cool" was an interesting word choice from Azziz.
"Cool: It's an abstract word that means something different to everyone," Rubio said.
Rubio and others said downtown has a pocket of coolness suited for those looking for an artsy life.
"There's a misconception here in town," he said.
Rubio pinpointed the blocks radiating from the corner of 10th Street and Broad Street as a "natural center for cool."
"It's always been small businesses and friends working together," he said. "We decided awhile back we're going to live here and do something."
Azziz said Augusta can reach a higher level quickly, and that's why he is willing to work on it.
"We have a good start," Azziz said. "We haven't gelled it all together into areas of town that people want to go."