Maximize our city's assets to draw the best, brightest

"I believe that Augusta is now undergoing a great awakening and entering a new era of enlightenment as we are now seeing concrete evidence of what can be accomplished when we rise above past differences and come together as one community united in the pursuit of excellence."

The quote above comes from my remarks May 20 at the inauguration ceremony for Ricardo Azziz as the new president of Georgia Health Sciences University. I have long been convinced that this is the case, and this past week offered up another historic moment in the life of our great city that stands to put an exclamation point upon this statement.

On June 5, in what will become one of the greatest stories in the history of collegiate golf, the Augusta State University men's golf team won their second consecutive NCAA Division 1 national championship. The story of how this happened will be chronicled for decades, but one of the things that has continued to resonate with me is simply this: what many considered to be an impossible dream at one point did happen, and it happened right here in Augusta.

ANOTHER POIGNANT part of the story is not just that our team won, but how they won. While other programs chose to discredit last year's national title as a fluke, and to treat our team at times with little respect, these young men led by Coach Josh Gregory chose to handle themselves with the utmost dignity and reverence toward the game while displaying true sportsmanship.

At Monday evening's celebration to honor the team, I listened intently to Josh humbly and graciously give credit to all those who had worked through the years to build a program that is second to none. During his remarks I was struck by the fact that I was again standing in the middle of a transformational moment for the city of Augusta.

Our community had been united by these young men -- our young men -- and their shining example of excellence achieved through the pursuit of a noble goal while focusing on the success of the team instead of individual honors.

I know I speak on behalf of our entire city in saying that words can never fully express how proud we are of Josh and the team, as their accomplishments have served to inspire us all to reach for greater heights, while personifying for our nation what a true champion looks like.

Over the past week, there has been an ongoing discussion in our community about the "cool factor" of Augusta based on the remarks of my good friend Dr. Azziz in a presentation he made to the Rotary Club of Augusta, in which he accurately pointed out that in order for our city to grow "we have to be cool."

I have made the same assertion time and again based on national demographic trends showing that recruiting and retaining millennials, the next generation of America's labor force, will be extraordinarily competitive as cities throughout the nation seek to draw the best and brightest young minds to provide sustainable growth.

EARLIER THIS YEAR, I graduated from the Mayor's Institute on City Design, and was afforded the opportunity to present a case study on our local redevelopment efforts to a panel of the nation's top minds on city design. During my presentation, I stressed my focus on not trying to tell this generation what our city is going to build for them, but to engage them in the conversation and ask them what assets our city needs to have to keep them here, and to help them recruit other members of their generation to Augusta.

My basic premise for stressing this is simple: In sales, you don't tell the customer what you're going to sell them; you market what your target audience wants to buy.

One example of a recent success Augusta has had in its business recruitment efforts through leveraging our assets, with an emphasis on our local institutions of higher learning and our strong quality of life, was the announcement in early December that Rural Sourcing Inc. would be bringing 100 IT jobs to Augusta.

In one interview, RSI CEO Monty Hamilton underscored this point when asked what drew the company to Augusta:

"The educational community here with the college universities and tremendous amount of graduates with the qualifications we are looking for. Low cost of living and high quality of living that Augusta offers. The people that grew up here, want to live here, have roots here and raising families. That makes for a stable workforce, which makes for a happy client. We are excited as we can be. It is just so much fun and so much energy when you walk into a building when you have a 100 young, middle-aged career folks (who) are doing programming and basically solving complex problems for our clients."

THE COMPANY CHOSE to locate its offices in Enterprise Mill, which will be a boost to our downtown redevelopment efforts: 100 more people with good-paying jobs to patronize our downtown businesses -- which is definitely a cool thing.

During the Mayor's Institute on City Design Annual Summit in Chicago earlier this year, I had the opportunity to spend time with Mayor Joe Riley of Charleston, S.C., a friend and the man who initially inspired me to run for mayor.

I've come to learn from Joe that Charleston has developed the capacity to embrace big ideas and big-picture projects. It wasn't always this way.

When Joe first made the passionate point that Charleston's waterfront is "the birthright of the people of Charleston," the critics and cynics abounded. Had Joe listened, Charleston would not be blessed with the asset of their amazing Waterfront Park that provides for a calming setting for visitors and residents.

It was Joe's influence on me that resulted in my passion to see our own riverfront developed in a way that maximizes its use to the public while engendering in me a deep love of community redevelopment.

In a recent blog entry, Dr. Azziz makes the point that Next Generation Consulting had recently ranked Charleston No. 2 on its list of "Next Cities: The 60 U.S Hotspots for Young, Talented Workers." How did it get there, and can Augusta make the list?

IN ANSWER TO THE first question, one thing that helped Charleston make the list is there came a point when the city embraced new ideas and began to expect great things. Charleston is home to an array of outdoor public spaces (including a riverfront ballpark in Joe Riley Jr. Stadium); a thriving and welcoming tourism industry; a wonderful arts community; a very diverse local economy; and a citizenry that believes in itself and in the city in which they live.

In answer to the second question, I would have to say a resounding "yes." However, to get there, we must develop the same mind-set as Charleston and no longer allow closed-minded CAVE (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) people to drive the debate as to how Augusta moves forward.

Are we a cool city today? Absolutely. We're the home of James Brown, Wycliffe Gordon, the Masters Tournament, Jessye Norman, Lady Antebellum, Larry Mize and the world's largest Iron Man event, to name just a few of the things that make us cool.

Can we become cooler? Without a doubt. Through the leveraging our "green assets" in the Savannah River, the Augusta Canal and the Phinizy Swamp Nature Park to increase our quality of life -- while at the same time focusing on the recruitment of businesses such as RSI, as well as the growth and vitality of our local institutions of higher learning and others -- the sky is the limit.

It's our choice in just how cool we become. As my father used to tell me, "Deke, it's all about attitude, and a good attitude will always take you places."

Along the way, I bet there were more than a few people who said Augusta State University would never win a national title at the Division 1 level -- but our guys never listened to them and they won two back-to-back.

How cool is that?

(The writer was elected mayor of Augusta in 2006.)

More