One piece at a time

Executing Augusta's Master Plan will take public work, private commitments -- and many years

Archaeologists estimate that Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza took at least 20 years to build through the nearly nonstop labor of between 20,000 and 30,000 workers.

The Great Wall of China, with several sections sprawling across more than 5,500 miles, was constructed by several ruling dynasties over about 2,000 years.

It’s a fact – civic improvements can take a long time.

Then there’s Augusta’s Master Plan – the sprawling package of 68 projects designed to change the landscape of Augusta and North Augusta.

Now, of course we’re not offering up an apples-to-apples comparison between two wonders of the world and, say, the renovation of Sutherland Mill near the Augusta Canal.

And any undertaking that involves taxpayers’ dollars deserves healthy skepticism. If citizens think this much-talked-up project is moving too slowly, they deserve an explanation why.

As Camille Price will tell you, executing a master plan isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon.

Price is executive director of Augusta Tomorrow. When she embarked on that job in 2001, her task was to oversee the implementation of an Augusta master plan begun in 1982 that unfolded over the next 25 years. That’s the plan that yielded Riverwalk Augusta, the Jessye Norman Amphitheater, a renovated Lamar Building and a riverfront hotel, among many other projects.

Now she’s running a network of volunteers to complete the current Master Plan unveiled in February 2009. So is progress – well, is it progressing?

Anyone who read the exhaustive list published in The Augusta Chronicle May 27 can see clearly the accomplishments so far. It’s just that it’s taking place with deliberate speed.

“Each proposed project undergoes an extensive assessment to make sure that it is ready for development,” Price said.

Properties slated for improvement have to be extensively reviewed. It’s a long process during which officials have to figure out what they have to work with; what needs to be added; what needs to be taken away; and who pays for it and how.

After that analysis, an implementation team examines similar projects to integrate their most successful aspects into Augusta’s project. Then there’s the market analysis, to ferret out a project’s strengths, weaknesses and other opportunities.

As we said, it’s a long process. It’s a vetting procedure they strive to follow with every project in the master plan.

Some impediments can be beyond planners’ control.

“One of the main reasons for the progress not taking place faster has been the national recession and the difficulty in bringing in private investment due to the current lending climate,” Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver said. “One of the difficulties with the plan as laid out is that it calls for a tremendous amount of public financing, which is not easy to come by these days.”

That can’t be emphasized enough. Civic undertakings on this scale require a tremendous public buy-in – not only with hearts and minds, but with dollars and cents. Just look at the Salvation Army’s remarkable Kroc Center. That wouldn’t have happened without more than $22 million raised right here in the Augusta area.

The city should explore every way

possible to incentivize private investment into shouldering more of the efforts of the master plan.

The term “master plan” has been a buzzword around here for decades. Georgia Gov. Herman Talmadge signed a bill into law in 1947 establishing a zoning commission for Augusta that would be tasked with developing “a master plan for the physical development of the county.” Ever since then, local government officials have been pursuing one plan or another. Plans start. Some stop. Some overlap.

Sometimes parts of a master plan, for reasons financial or
logistical, simply don’t materialize. Did you know that, under the 1982 master plan, the Imperial Theatre was slated to be demolished to make room for an office park? Or that there were plans for a full-scale replica of the 18th-century Fort Augusta as a tourist attraction?

But that’s part of the nature of civic planning. As we’ve said before, cities aren’t static. They change. Circumstances change. And when they do, master plans – and the planners who administer them – have to adapt. And that eats up more time.

“This is a 20-to-25-year plan, and it has that length because of the complicated projects in the plan,” Price said. “Often it takes a number of years for any one project to happen.”

Slow and steady is what wins in civic development– and the city should be encouraged to keep their eye on the ball in navigating this 2009 Master Plan to a successful, prosperous conclusion.

But citizens shouldn’t confuse slow and steady with no movement at all.

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