The driving force behind some of Augusta’s best-known public developments is looking to take the next step.
What is Augusta Tomorrow?
Augusta Tomorrow is developing a new portion of the overall master plan to improve sections of the city and attract people to the area.
From its start in 1982, Augusta Tomorrow has looked at Augusta, what it has, what it needs, and what is available to bring improvements. It used the information to create a master plan targeting areas one step at a time. Among the successes are the Riverwalk, the riverfront project with the Marriott Hotel, Convention Center and Riverfront Center, and the Augusta Common.
The most recent portion, the Westobou Vision Urban Area Master Plan, was revealed in 2009.
Executive Director, Lauren Dallas said the organization is ready to take the master plan to its next step.
“It’s so interesting that if you look at the 2009 plan, and where kind of the world was, or the United States was, you know, we were in a financial crisis. And so now, it’s good timing, because we’re kind of coming out of a crisis, out of the pandemic,” she said.
Where is funding going?
The Augusta Commission recently approved a request for $150,000 to help fund the next phase of the master plan.
“The whole plan will be 50% private and 50% public. So, we will be asking North Augusta to chip in, and then the rest will be private dollars,” Dallas explained. “We’re starting to talk with consultants on what the project looks like. We have kind of our boundaries in mind.”
Dallas said they are looking at three specific sections of the city, the areas immediately around the 5th Street Bridge, the 13th Street Bridge, and the area around the King Mill on upper Broad Street.
The 5th Street Bridge recently re-opened as a pedestrian-only bridge. There’s land on the Augusta side, including the depot property, and parcels on the North Augusta side that could be incorporated into projects in the master plan.
The 13th Street Bridge is scheduled to undergo a major overhaul that will add a bike lane and protected pedestrian walkway. It provides a direct connection between downtown Augusta and downtown North Augusta.
What will this project look like and what are the challenges?
Derek May is currently the President of Azalea Investments, LLC, which owns the Augusta Marriott and Convention Center. He’s also a member of the Augusta Tomorrow Board of Directors. May had a decade-long history working with Morris Communications in executive roles, giving him a unique perspective on downtown development.
“It has potential and timing is everything,” he said. “And what are the rental rates in Augusta? Or what are the construction costs, and the interest rates? So, you’ve got all these economic factors, but these are riverfront properties. And there’s not going to be any more created. It’s finite. I just think as Augusta continues to grow over time, they’re just going to become more and more valuable. So, to me, it’s not a matter of if, but when.”
Dallas said one universal challenge to the success of any master plan is to get private owners of land in the desired area to support the project.
“You have to have them buy in on a vision, so that they feel better about making something happen rather than just signing away land and not knowing whatever is going to happen with it,” she said. “So, the invested parties are obviously important.”
North Augusta City Administrator Jim Clifford agrees.
“I think as far as property ownership, what makes it interesting and challenging is that the city is not the sole property owner down there,” he said. “So, the city’s got some property, the county has property down there, and the rest of it is privately owned. So, there are still some discussions to be had about what that’s going to look like, in the long term. I think when we start talking about North Augusta property, we don’t own a lot of property that’s really in play near the 13th Street Bridge. But the 5th Street Bridge is an area where I think there’s still some discussion to be had.”
May said the public-private partnership is important for projects such as these. The private sector can take out loans and spur development, but there must be infrastructure provided by the public sector.
He said the value of partnerships extends to the cities of Augusta and North Augusta, calling it “critical.”
“Ultimately, if you get things going on both sides of the river, you get a lot of creative things that can happen such as water taxis and things like that, that you see in other cities that are sitting on a river,” May said.
What will this do for the community?
Dallas and Clifford agree that creating good relationships among public, private, and non-government organizations is vital to the future of any development.
“You have got to walk a fine line between duplicating efforts, but I think having cross-connectivity across these boards is critical,” Clifford said. “It allows for opportunities and conversations that occur, that otherwise would not and also make different boards and commissions aware of opportunities that are out there.”
“We got really lucky when we got him (Clifford) to stay in the area,” said Dallas. “His knowledge on how to maintain and kind of create infrastructure, solve infrastructure problems, is institutional knowledge that you don’t find. He’s always very insightful. And even when things pertain to our side of the river, he’s very quick to act on a committee.”
Dallas said the public will have opportunities to offer input on what would be desirable in the areas targeted in the upcoming master plan revision.
“So, we will be having a lot of meetings on this with the public sector, but also with the people that work downtown and the ones that have community buy in,” she said. “We want to make this the best version that we can. And I think we have a really good opportunity with that, because of the population growth we have. I think we’re going to have a lot of opportunities for public forums.”
Dallas said Augusta Tomorrow is also looking at other opportunities for the future, including ways to encourage more people to visit Augusta’s riverfront.
“The street market is great. And the Riverwalk is great. But, you have to give people a sense of place once they’re there, a sense of safety,” she said. “We’re trying to figure out where we can get more housing toward that area. A restaurant would be great so that you can dine and look out the window and see the river. I believe that’s why we would like the Boathouse to be operational and see what its highest and best uses. But you know, live, work, and play toward the river. I think is a high priority for this plan.”
May said developing the areas around the bridges can result in connectivity between the two cities, and even out into Columbia County.
“Those are both gateways into the cities that sit side by side,” he said. “The 13th Street Bridge can easily connect in with the (North Augusta) Greeneway and on the Augusta side, the Bartram Trail that goes out and connects so you could ride a bike from Evans all the way into North Augusta. Now, I think having both those bridges connecting the two cities just makes it fun. It makes something unique in our downtown. Most downtowns wish they could have something like that.”
Dallas said it traditionally takes about a year to gather input, speak with property owners, and collect proposals to create this next section of the master plan.