The recent announcement of a new stadium and town center development just across the 13th Street bridge surprised a lot of people, but not those who have been paying attention to North Augusta.
Those who have been watching the city across the Savannah River have seen it coming for quite some time.
Mayor Lark Jones has had an insider’s view.
“Over the last 15 years, first and foremost, we have moved out of the shadow of Augusta and carved our own identity,” said Jones, who has sat at the helm of the city’s most significant period of growth and change since it was founded in 1906.
Jones credits several components to the city’s success, but he says the main thing behind it is a stable, business-friendly government. Jones said that includes years of planning by previous administrations such as that of former Mayor Tom Greene, the namesake of the Greeneway, the city’s much-used pedestrian and bicycle trail system.
“They did things right and laid the foundation that allows us to do the things we are doing now,” he said.
Some of those things include major improvements to the downtown’s main drag: Georgia Avenue. New signs and streetscaping along Georgia and West avenues are designed to make the downtown area more picturesque and pedestrian-friendly.
In 2008, the city erected a 68,000-square-foot Municipal Center that towers over the city’s Georgia Avenue entrance. And each year the city works to make improvements to its parks and public spaces, Jones said.
Since 2009, the city has invested more than $25 million in improvement projects.
“We have a tremendous park system,” he said. “We have purchased property for another Riverview-size park in the north side of town that eventually will be completed as well.”
Jones said focusing on these “quality of life” details instills a sense of community pride and makes North Augusta an attractive place for people to live and raise families. That, in turn, is the kind of environment that attracts more business and more development.
“Maybe 20 years ago people thought of North Augusta as a bedroom community, but now they don’t,” said Turner Simkins, one of the businessmen behind the Hammond’s Ferry development, a “new urban” community growing on North Augusta’s riverfront.
Simkins said North Augusta has created an environment that attracts entrepreneurs and investors, which is why so much growth is happening on the South Carolina side of the river.
Walking along the riverfront Thursday, Simkins pointed to a newly planted overcup oak tree as an example of how well the city works with developers.
“They just planted that; I didn’t even know it was there,” he said.
He said some of the trees planted on streets a few years ago are growing so fast that they are already getting a bit crowded for space. A few need to be culled here and there to make room for others.
“In most communities you have trouble getting the city out to cut a limb,” he said. “Here, not only do they take down trees, but they plant new ones without you even asking.”
Years of growth
Simkins said the new development proposal, which includes a town center that has always been part of the Hammond’s Ferry plan, along with the new baseball stadium, will be the fruition of plans first proposed by the city’s founding father, James U. Jackson.
According to city history, Jackson first envisioned a new town in the bluff areas above the flood plains as a boy growing up in Augusta. After becoming a successful businessman, he began to develop plans for a city situated on 600 acres, hiring designers from New York to assist with his vision. He eventually sought financial backing for a new bridge at 13th Street to connect the two cities, building it in 1891 for the cost of $85,000.
In 1951, the city extended its boundaries to an area of 5,139 acres – or about eight square miles – and has since expanded to about 20 square miles. Jones said steady, controlled growth has been an essential part of the city’s success and has helped it maintain a stable tax rate.
“We have not had a property tax increase in 21 years,” he said. “We have grown enough, and growth has been very steady. It hasn’t mushroomed. If you look at every census, we have grown slowly and surely every 10 years.”
In fact, North Augusta’s population has grown by about 22 percent since 2000, according to census data. The census estimates the city’s 2011 population at 21,400.
Jones also said leadership on the county level has been instrumental in keeping North Augusta growing even through the economic slowdown.
When Savannah River Site began shedding jobs in the early 1990s, county officials worked to diversify its economic base, recruiting other industry, such as the Bridgestone tire plant.
“They said we don’t need to let SRS be the sole driver of economic development in Aiken County,” Jones said.
He also noted how bringing in big retailers, such as Lowe’s and Wal-Mart, helped drive even more growth and business development.
“Now people don’t have to get in their cars and immediately go to Augusta for everything,” he said.
Jones expects the city’s growth to continue and the riverfront development is no small part of that plan.
The Project Jackson development proposal includes a 200-room resort-style hotel and conference center modeled after Hampton Terrace, a North Augusta winter resort that burned in 1916; as many as four restaurants; 75 townhouses; 225 apartments; 30,000 square feet of retail space; 40,000 square feet of office space; and 900 parking spaces.
Under the proposal, the city would be responsible for about 30 percent of the financing, about $43 million for the sports and entertainment center, conference center, and parking garage. In exchange, private developers promise $122 million in investment for the hotel, retail, residential and office space in addition to the already-announced new riverfront Family Y, officials said.
Simkins said the baseball stadium is just an enhancement to plans that were already in the works. Jones said the plans are still in the early stages, with many steps to complete before any shovels start turning earth. Simkins said that’s what he expects and he wouldn’t have it another way.
“They are strict. They are very rigid about some things, but they are fair,” Simkins said of city officials. “If they say they are going to do something, they will do it. The cooperative spirit here is really great.”
The stage is set
Carolyn Myers agrees. The new owner of the Brick Pond Market on Crystal Lake Drive said she had originally planned to open her restaurant and neighborhood market in the fall, but those plans went on hold while working through several issues with city inspectors.
“Actually, I like it that way,” said Myers, who opened her doors last week. “They are slow, but sure, and they really helped me. They were great to work with.”
Brett Brannon, a partner in Georgialina Physical Therapy and other businesses, said he too had a positive experience with his development project, Jackson Square, a 30,000-square-foot commercial building at the corner of Georgia and Buena Vista avenues. That project was completed in 2007 and is 100 percent occupied by businesses that were new to the downtown area, Brannon said.
“The city for us has been very reasonable to work with,” he said.
He and his partners have since acquired more property, including the former North Augusta Star newspaper building across the street.
Brannon said he sees more growth in the near future, not just on the riverfront and downtown but in other areas, such as the Palmetto Parkway interchange on Interstate 20.
“Quite honestly they have planned well,” Brannon said of city leadership.
“You go back several mayors and you can see that they have laid good ground work,” he said. “They have taken an approach that they are not raising taxes and development will take care of itself. I think it has served them well.”