Guest Column: Downtown Augusta enjoyed prosperous 2013, with bright hope ahead

 

The year 2013 has been a banner year for Augusta’s Central Business District, and the Downtown Development Authority has been in the middle of these exciting accomplishments and initiatives, many of which enhance the living environment and will add to the tax base.

 

DEMAND FOR RESIDENTIAL housing downtown is strong with 96 percent occupancy. A recent addition to this robust market is the historic 834 Greene Street project, which was completed in September and houses six new market-rate apartments. The Vine Inn is under renovation, and construction will begin at 303 Greene and 1225 Greene early next year. These projects and many others have been championed by the DDA, and are a core component of the DDA’s mission.

The retail environment on and around Broad Street continues to be healthy. Related to the opening of the Augusta Convention Center, five buildings within a one-block radius have been purchased, and plans for renovations for retail and residential use are underway. Additionally, New Moon Cafe and The Book Tavern have completed expansion efforts in the J.B. White’s Building, and newer restaurants such as Frog Hollow and Farmhaus have made dining excursions to downtown special. Development of many such
projects has been aided by the DDA.

Many projects have been facilitated by the DDA through the Georgia Cities Loan Foundation. Projects approved by the DDA are eligible to borrow up to 40 percent of project costs at a below-market interest rate. Various DDAs in Georgia are the sole avenues for this financing, and the Augusta DDA has leveraged its role to extraordinary impact to improve downtown: $2.9 million in loans has led directly to $30 million in private investment. This investment has added 108 apartments and condominiums and 25,000 square feet of retail space to downtown’s inventory, and added $3 million to the Augusta -Richmond County tax base. We are honored to be a part of the investments that residents, entrepreneurs and the city of Augusta are making in downtown.

 

THIS YEAR THE DDA, with support from private partners and economic development allies, launched a comprehensive retail strategy to develop and maintain a robust retail sector. The project includes updated demographic data, retail gap analysis and a proactive recruitment of prospects with deal structuring and site planning. Downtown Augusta has been represented by our consultants at conventions in New York City, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Dallas and Orlando, Fla. While still in its infancy, an impressive prospect list is being built, and the demographic reports are promising. Downtown Augusta’s population and household demographics show significant increases.

The benefits of this initiative include job creation, growth in the tax base and encouragement for business to remain, expand or relocate, and provides a recruitment tool to major employers when positioning Augusta to potential employees and service providers. The initiative for such an effort had stalled in the city government, and the DDA’s leadership in this arena will help diversify the downtown economic base. Private contributions from stakeholders downtown speak to the importance of making our downtown a destination again for shopping, recreation and dining. We look forward to rolling out this information in early 2014.

It just keeps coming! Next quarter, a streetscape project will begin on James Brown Boulevard. With the new courthouse, library and infill development, James Brown Boulevard is a major gateway connecting Laney-Walker Boulevard to the downtown core. This $1.2 million project will include new sidewalks, trees and street furniture. This project is made possible by a grant awarded to the DDA by the Department of Transportation and matching funds by the city of Augusta.

Plans also are underway to give an Augusta landmark a much-needed facelift in 2014. The DDA has allocated $1 million in special-purpose local option sales tax funds to make improvements to Riverwalk Augusta. Riverwalk has been a popular destination for our residents and visitors, and is home to the Saturday Market and the Sunday Night Jazz Series. The latter event is hosted on a DDA-funded riverbank stage.

 

THE DDA BOARD of Directors has a vested interest in the success of our city center. We have engaged in initiatives that sometimes are not easy or popular, but we believe are in the best interest of our great city. Issues such as safety, cleanliness and parking will remain top priorities in 2014.

When downtown remains vibrant and healthy, Augusta reaps the benefits. We thank you for the opportunity to serve.

 

(The writer is chairman of the Downtown Development Authority of Augusta.)

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