Originally created 04/18/99

Partnerships boost city



Augusta's government leaders and business community had good reason to join hands two decades ago: The heart of their city was falling apart.

Downtown was void of retail business, the riverfront was vacant and unattractive, and nearly all new development occurred in the suburbs.

It was this landscape that gave birth to Augusta Tomorrow, a behind-the-scenes group of civic leaders, businessmen and politicians.

The public-private partnership laid out in the group's original 1982 plan caused $100 million in private investments to be leveraged from $25 million in government funds during a 13-year period, leading to some of the city's most vibrant developments.

Today, the group still steers most of the city's public-private improvement efforts. Its current project list calls for more than $100 million in new developments, with most funding once again coming from the private sector.

The plan marks "a new chapter in our revitalization efforts," said Charles DeVaney, former mayor and Augusta Tomorrow's executive vice president.

State funds crucial

The backbone of the new plan is a $30 million state funding request spearheaded by Augusta Tomorrow member and Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta.

If approved, the state funds would pool with $65 million in private and local government money to finance nine public-private projects in several city sectors, including downtown, the Laney-Walker district and south Richmond County.

Officials say the one-time funding package, disbursed over a five-year period, has the unofficial seal of approval from Gov. Roy Barnes, a political ally of Mr. Walker.

The aid package would help finish projects such as the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame and help others, such as the replacement of Paine College's gymnasium, get off the ground.

Officials anticipate each of the nine developments will boost economic development, create jobs and bolster tourism.

Augusta Tomorrow member and House Speaker Pro Tem Jack Connell, D-Augusta, said the city stands a good chance of receiving similar funding in coming years if the projects prove successful.

"We want it known how well (these projects) are being accomplished before we go for additional money," he said. "Let's get this one done first."

Partnering aids image

Shrinking government budgets have caused public-private partnerships to proliferate in recent years. Business, too, has realized partnerships help their corporate image.

For example, contributions from Jones Intercable and Coca-Cola got their names on city Riverwalk banners and downtown trash cans.

But more than that, many large projects would fall by the wayside without both public and private dollars, City Administrator Randy Oliver said.

Private-sector investments help local officials tap into outside funding sources, such as federal grants.

"You can leverage your money better and get more things completed," Mr. Oliver said.

Tax dollars also can help jump-start private development, officials say. An example is the Laney-Walker district, where civic leaders are using government money to construct an addition to the Armstrong Galleria shopping center.

They hope a national retail chain will move into the partially subsidized center, thereby increasing neighborhood traffic and spurring additional private-sector development.

The area can get weaned off the subsidies once it gets back on its feet, officials say.

That's already happened on Broad Street, officials say, where several art gallery owners were on city rent subsidies to encourage the development of Artists Row several years ago.

The tenants in the booming area are no longer on the dole and are contributing to the economy through sales taxes, property taxes and business licenses.

"It's a good example of using public money to prime the pump," Mr. DeVaney said.

Politics plays role

Past public-private endeavors have not gone without controversy. The very act of pooling tax monies and government incentives with private development opened a Pandora's box.

One of the city's largest proposed developments, a $12 million hotel and convention center expansion, was almost scrapped last year over criticism of the developer's use of tax dollars.

The developer in that case, Augusta Riverfront Limited Partnership, proposed giving the city a 30,000-square-foot conference center expansion in exchange for Augusta-Richmond County commissioners' canceling debt left over from its 1992 construction of the adjacent Augusta Riverfront Center.

Critics said the city was being exploited; others considered it a fair swap. A deal eventually was hammered out, but the whole episode illustrated how public-private partnerships can turn political when each side is looking for a return on its investment.

"It's not so much 50-50 anymore," Mr. DeVaney said.

"It's got to be win-win for both parties," Mr. Oliver added.

Projects blending public and private money are also subject to turf disputes, officials say, because the geographic interests of politicians and businessmen are not always mutual.

Private investment in the Laney-Walker neighborhood, for example, isn't easy because it's been abandoned by the business community for so long.

Likewise, it's difficult getting unified support for downtown projects from people with interests outside the central business district.

"There's a faction that believes downtown should be a tourist destination, another faction who believes it should be a retail center, and then there's another faction that doesn't really care what happens downtown," Mayor Bob Young said.

Business takes initiative

Not every revitalization project is a public-private partnership. Many local business leaders have made sizable investments without government help.

The Knox family of Augusta spent $2.5 million renovating Sacred Heart Cultural Center in 1987.

Augusta's Boardman family is nearing the end of a $16 million renovation of the historic Enterprise Mill into an office, residential and retail complex.

"We have a tendency in this town to criticize what's out there and never take ownership of the problem," Clayton Boardman III said in a recent interview with The Augusta Chronicle. "... So I figured the best thing I could do is take a piece of the master plan and do it myself."

Local entrepreneur Julian Osbon has already invested some of the $3 million it will take to improve his downtown properties during the next four years. Those properties include the 1200 block of Broad Street, which will be home to a retail and restaurant destination called The Shops on Marbury. It will play off foot traffic created by other downtown attractions.

Mr. Young said developments such as these are evidence that Augusta's private sector is willing to help out, but that he believes the community hasn't done a good enough job of asking.

"We could do so much more. We need to start thinking outside the box around here," he said. "Let's start thinking a little differently about what we want and how we can creatively pay for it."

Damon Cline covers business for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3486.