Augusta is a city that has been built on innovation. When Henry Cummings looked at the shoals of the Savannah River blocking forward upstream progress, he boldly saw a canal to promote commerce. When Bobby Jones looked out over Fruitland Nursery, he saw a golf course that would revolutionize the game. When James Brown looked at a musical scale, he saw a funky beat that would change the face of music.
Today Sibley and King Mills serve as historic monuments to this spirit of innovation, and a recent exciting proposal to Georgia Regents University Augusta on behalf of the city would serve to build on this same spirit.
TO BETTER EXPLAIN how we came to this point, I’ll give some historical context. Last year a new organization was formed called the Augusta Regional Collaboration Project to foster a more collaborative environment amongst entities and organizations throughout our region. The original concept was based on the idea of leveraging ongoing game-changing events in our local economy to include the expansion of Plant Vogtle; the newly opened National Security Agency facility at Fort Gordon; local passage of the transportation special-purpose local option sales tax; the new $172 million Starbucks manufacturing facility; and the consolidation of our local universities.
Since its inception, the ARC Project has further refined its focus areas to cultural ecology; innovation, technology and entrepreneurship; sustainability and green jobs; and education clusters.
AFTER THE RECRUITMENT process of Starbucks, Matt Kwatinetz was brought on to head the ARC Project. Matt was part of Kinzer Real Estate, a consulting firm that helped to critically analyze Augusta’s existing assets during the crucial decision-making process. With an MBA in real estate and finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and a background in urban economics – along with an intimate knowledge of what sets Augusta at a competitive advantage from an economic development perspective – Matt has been able to establish a strong working relationship with our city’s elected leadership, our local business community, our educational community and our arts community as we all seek to work together toward leading our city to heights not yet achieved.
LAST DECEMBER the Augusta Commission unanimously approved a resolution of support for the city to step forward to help with Georgia Regents University’s ongoing expansion, allowing for the city to engage the university regarding the potential for developing innovative partnerships that would be of benefit both to the school and the city.
Several campus expansion scenarios were discussed internally, with the city taking the lead in fleshing out a concept for both the “Mills Campus,” to include King and Sibley mills, and a “Cultural Campus” to build on the ongoing restorations of the Imperial and Miller theaters, creating an arts cluster on that portion of Broad Street. The potential for the development of a performing arts center on the riverfront Depot Property in proximity also is a major component of ongoing discussions to further enhance the Cultural Campus.
Engineers and architects further fleshed out the Mills Campus project as the city team met with state officials to keep them informed of the city’s progress while getting their support in moving forward to further explore the potential for both campus expansions. Over the past week the campus expansion plans have been presented to GRU President Ricardo Azziz’s cabinet, the Augusta Canal Authority Board of Directors, city department heads and our local legislative delegation – being met at all levels with an overwhelming amount of excitement, enthusiasm and support.
THE UNIVERSITY and the city share many connection points. We are critically joined together in so many ways. One of the most crucial of these ways is the major benefit to both the university and our community brought on by growth in the student population. National demographic trends show that younger Americans are flocking back to city centers, wanting to be a part of a lifestyle allowing easy access to a live-work-and-play environment afforded by an urban core.
With connectivity being a key to future growth, the Mills Campus would provide the potential for connecting with the existing Health Sciences Campus while providing direct access to downtown through trail systems and the Augusta Canal to students and faculty. That the property is adjacent to 2,000 acres of permanently protected greenspace in the Augusta Canal National Heritage Area, the Kroc Center Augusta and the Savannah River also provide major amenities to the site that cannot be duplicated elsewhere.
ALTHOUGH THE Mills and Cultural campuses are still in the vetting process – with many questions to be answered prior to any final approvals being given to proceed – it is extremely encouraging to see a concept that has been so well-received at all levels.
With the potential to foster innovation in education, historic preservation, neighborhood revitalization, economic development, the arts and conservation, we believe that if we are able to achieve the lofty goal of the completion of the Mills and Cultural campuses, it would represent the ultimate win-win-win for the state, the university and the city.
(The writer first was elected mayor of Augusta in 2005.)