With new university, Augusta faces a unique opportunity

This artist's rendering depicts a plan that city officials proposed for redeveloping two historic textile mills into educational or housing space for the expansion of Georgia Regents University.

 

A solid university is among the strongest economic engines to drive and improve the fortunes of the community that surrounds it. The jobs associated with universities pay well and are stable. The students and faculty are consumers in and benefactors to the community, and their vitality can push up the quality of life for everyone.

Augusta has the next great university in the South.

The combined university in Augusta is in a very rare situation. Most universities are established as colleges that grow and mature, then expand into graduate programs to meet the needs of their constituencies. Here, the combined university has a mature medical/dental/nursing school with its teaching and research funding that was not previously tied to an undergraduate college – it was a locomotive in need of a train.

 

WITH CONSOLIDATION, that medical education complex is tied to the undergraduate college and business school, and the undergraduate programs will grow and expand with a larger student body, more and better course offerings, on-campus housing and the attendant facilities to meet a real and growing educational need in Georgia.

The way government funds its institutions is such that we cannot expect an overall five-year plan or 10-year plan from the University System of Georgia Board of Regents for the consolidation and growth of the university that will fund out before the community changes. Notwithstanding, the consolidation will continue, and it would be unrealistic to expect the university to retain its current spread of campuses (i.e., 15th Street, Summerville and Wrightsboro Road). The university is headed for a single unified campus, and the medical complex investment is such that the campus will be around the 15th Street facilities.

The question for the people who care about Augusta is whether we stand on the sidelines and watch over the next 30 years as the land is acquired piecemeal here and there around the existing buildings, for new facilities to be slotted in as funding allows, or whether we put together and implement a comprehensive plan to establish the campus in Augusta that a great university deserves.

 

AUGUSTA HAS A unique opportunity that will not be here in 10 years or even five. A campus stretching from the current dental school and up 15th Street all the way to the Savannah River – expanding in one direction to the upper end of downtown and in the other direction up to, across and along the Augusta Canal at the Kroc Center and all the way to the edge of the Canal Authority’s 2,200-acre property – can be acquired and established.

The Mills property is available, and the land along Broad Street and Reynolds Street from the Augusta Canal down to 15th Street, then west along 15th Street and the entire area known as Harrisburg, will benefit. The beauty and distinctive character of Augusta’s renovated mill buildings has been demonstrated at Enterprise Mill and Sutherland Mill, and the King Mill can be similarly renovated to form the hardscape pillars of the most important expansion of higher education Georgia will see in our lifetime.

But such a broad establishment of an institutional footprint in preparation for the future is not the way Georgia’s college and university facilities have been funded, and the Board of Regents simply cannot focus so much of their funding into the foundation of the university to bring such a long-term vision to fruition. Combining the efforts and leadership of private citizens, government acquisition authority and private and local public funding, the campus can be acquired and planned, and the core buildings can be put in place – in spite of the limitations of state funding and process.

 

THE BENEFITS to Augusta are easy to see. Jobs, investment, new consumers, enhanced recreational facilities, enhanced arts and all the tangible and intangible benefits of a large residential university are at hand. Placing a young population next to the canal will expand its use. The north end of downtown will improve. Harrisburg will continue to improve.

The question is whether the consolidated university is where the community should focus its local public and private funding, or whether there is a good argument against putting together the campus.

 

(The writer is a member manager of the Augusta retail development company Hull Storey Gibson.)

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