AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – We are deep into the political season and so that’s where we’re shifting our focus here on The Means Report to local politics. We are trying to give you a feel for what the candidates stand for, how much they want your vote, and why. This wee we shift to the contest for Augusta mayor. One that was not, as you know, decided in the primary. Steven Kendrick longtime Richmond County tax commissioner, Garnett Johnson runs Augusta Office Solutions in town, are facing off in a runoff and took time to join us.
Brad Means: Thank y’all both for taking the time to be with me today. I appreciate you.
Garnett Johnson: Certainly and thank you, Brad.
Brad Means: Let me ask y’all each a question. Steven Kendrick, I’ll start with you. It has to do with the closeness of that primary night separated by about 180 votes, you and Mr. Johnson. Did you anticipate that at all? I just what kind of an initial feeling from both of y’all, what’d you think about that tight race?
Steven Kendrick: Well, sure, you had to anticipate that there was going to be an extension of the race with as many candidates. And you’re certainly happy. I think we’ve got the best two alternatives for our city. While everyone was hoping for that to be the end of it, it was pretty predictable that you’d have a couple of people doing this a little bit longer.
Brad Means: Yeah, you’re right. There were a million people running. Garnett Johnson, did you think it would go to a runoff and you were just hoping you’d get in it or did you think you’d win it out right that day?
Garnett Johnson: Certainly, I knew we would be competitive in that we were singing a message of change and I think that was resonating with the voters. We certainly anticipated on this being a close race. We’re excited to have made the runoff to continue to tell our story and how we plan to move the city forward.
Brad Means: Well, you need 181 votes or so to eclipse what you did primary night, are you doing anything differently in the runoff to get those and to get your people back out?
Garnett Johnson: We’re working hard to get our base back out, as well as continuing to tell our story, the story of change. I come from a business background. I tend to look at things a little bit more differently than the typical elected official or politician, so that’s gonna be our story, and our song, and we’re gonna stick to that.
Brad Means: How about you, Mr. Kendrick, any different strategy or kind of dance with the one that brought you?
Steven Kendrick: We’re doing the same thing as well. We are trying to get the voters who believed in what we were saying and understand that government can work for the public And we’ve demonstrated that over the last 13 years, and we understand how to make government work and work for citizens. And we’re doing our best to beat the bushes and make sure they in the middle of a summer, come back out on a Tuesday and make sure we get the resolution that we need to get.
Brad Means: Yeah, you’re right. I mean, it’s June 21st. It’s the middle of vacation season. It is a challenge to get people to go back out and vote. Mr. Kendrick, what about endorsements? Do you think those help, or hurt, or matter at all when a candidate who didn’t win says, “okay, now I support this person”? Do those work, do they generate more votes?
Steven Kendrick: Well, endorsements certainly can have an effect on making sure people know that someone is believed in. And then, certainly when they’re newsworthy, they bring more publicity to the candidate, which is a lot of what happens. But I think not only those endorsement, but the endorsements of organizations matter as well. So when the Policeman’s Benevolent Association endorses you, or the local Builders Association, who both endorse me, I think those things are the ability of an organization to say we trust what you do, we trust your leadership. So those and personal endorsements can have an effect if people are paying attention.
Brad Means: What about you, Garnett Johnson? You’ve had some high profile endorsements, Deke Copenhaver, the two term mayor, Mary Ann Williams, the longtime commissioner. Do you think it’s gonna give you the boost you need?
Garnett Johnson: I would hope so, but you know, we’ve always said the most important endorsement is the endorsement of the people and that’s what we’ve been seeking, just having conversations with the everyday citizens seeing what their needs are and what they like to see different in this city.
Brad Means: Let me ask you this, Mr. Kendrick, recently a huge announcement that you spearheaded made headlines. It was exciting news for sure. Talk about the potential redevelopment of the Regency Mall property, retail, apartments, you name it, just transforming that place. Do you, in your heart, think that’s going to happen and why? It seemed to come out of the blue.
Steven Kendrick: Well, I not only believe it’s going to happen, I’m gonna work no matter the outcome of this race to make sure that it does happen. I think Augusta has, for far too long, been saddled with this blighted eye sore that we needed to move in a different direction. And we found an opportunity and a pathway to engage with the owners, and engage with the leadership, and put together a team that has gotten farther than has ever been done before.
Brad Means: What about the Economic Development Authority? They seemed to be a bit blindsided by this announcement. You’re an Economic Development Authority veteran, you chaired that thing. Did you let them know what you were doing?
Steven Kendrick: So certainly there were people on the Economic Development Authority who knew, but we did not as a board approach this as a project, because at this time it wasn’t a project, they had not asked us officially for any support. If at that time it comes about in which the organization wants to ask for support from either the city, the Economic Development Authority, or any other agency there will be a formal way in which to do that and we’ll gauge at that time. But I felt as my place in the community, not only as the Economic Development chair, but as tax commissioner, which is what I was when that started, we were moving forward with making sure this project got some legs so that we could continue to have a bright future and give some hope to the citizens in Augusta, and most specifically, South Augusta.
Brad Means: What about you, Garnett Johnson? What do you think about the project itself and its possibilities? And were you on the sidelines cheering when Mr. Kendrick had that news conference because it was gonna make south Augusta better?
Garnett Johnson: Of course, you know, that property has sat in our city at one of the most important quarters and plans are great. I think any improvement to Regency Mall would be great. But I would take it a different approach in that I believe that that mall needs to be demolished. I think that property needs to be purchased in local hands and I think it needs to be totally redeveloped in a way that creates a tax center and an economic base for the City of Augusta. So my plans would be different.
Brad Means: Mr. Kendrick, let me go back to it real quick. We could spend the whole half hour on Regency Mall. What makes you believe that people are gonna go there and shop? No disrespect to that area, but what around there is booming and thriving to make you go, “hey, let’s dump tons of money into this place and it too will thrive”? What are you seeing right now that makes you think it’s possible?
Steven Kendrick: So the plan is not to dump the businesses there first, the plan is to bring the people there first. Economic development, the equation centers around having people available for the businesses and entrepreneurial startups that come with it. So the owner is proposing putting people there in residences, up to 1000 apartments, which would generate over 2000 people that would live in this 77 acre plot. If that happens, all of a sudden, the businesses around get a new lifeblood because all of a sudden there are people to go to the Waffle House in Southgate, or to the dentist office, or there’s opportunities for new cleaners and a new daycare. All of those things come with the people coming. So our approach has been bring people, much like what’s happened in Grovestown. Grovestown has exploded, but it exploded because people moved there and then the businesses came as well. So we’re not gonna plant the businesses there first. The thought is to plant the people there and the businesses come too.
Brad Means: Mr. Johnson, let me ask you this. You’re a newcomer to politics, and you’re using that as a strength when you are on the campaign trail. But I’ll say this, from my vantage point, watching Augusta politics for a quarter century, it takes relationships to make things work, right?
Garnett Johnson: It really does. You gotta get those six votes, or unless you break a tie as the mayor.
Brad Means: What kind of relationships do you have behind the scenes with the lady and gentlemen on the commission that makes you think, “okay, we can get things done together”?
Garnett Johnson: You know, that’s a great question. We have a lot of great relationships, not only on the commission, but throughout the community, throughout the business community, throughout the faith based community. As a lifelong sales guy, I’ve always tasked myself with creating relationships that are mutually beneficial to both parties, helping to move this community forward. Today I serve as a chairman of the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce in which we advocate and represent more than 1200 businesses. So certainly we have the relationships in the community. We have the relationships not only at the local level, but at the state and federal level. And I think you need a mayor that has that skill set and those relationships to move Augusta forward.
Brad Means: All right, so let me ask you a similar question, Mr. Kendrick. You’ve been around the block a few times when it comes to the workings of Augusta government. What are you hearing behind the scenes from the people you may be working with in a few months? Do they support you? Do they want to help you with whatever agenda you may have as mayor?
Steven Kendrick: Well, I think that’s what makes me uniquely qualified to lead this city and make a difference day one. I have those relationships with those commissioners and work with them, and have worked with them for the last 13 years in any number of ways, both on projects, like what was proposed, but very simple community based things as well. I understand that inner workings of government, I understand the give and take that has to happen between a mayor and a commission because I’ve participated in it. Beyond that, those relationships at the state level with Economic Development Authority and the state Economic Development Agency, all of those things come together. The legislative delegation matters as far as here, the school board is so important. I have relationships in all of those groups and I’m looking to finally put together a team that will allow us to get on the same page, with a shared vision, and move this community in the right direction and advance. And so I believe it uniquely makes me qualified.
Brad Means: This is a special edition of the “Means Report”. We are having a conversation with the candidates for mayor of Augusta. You’re gonna go to the polls in just a few short days to decide which one of these gentlemen becomes Augusta’s next mayor. And we’ll continue that talk when the “Means Report” comes back.
Brad Means: Welcome back to the “Means Report”. Brad Means with you in this exciting edition of the “Means Report” as we talked to the candidates for mayor of Augusta, Steven Kendrick and Garnett Johnson. Garnett Johnson, let me lead off this segment with you. And the question is just about the overall look of Augusta, Georgia. It doesn’t seem to me like it’s as pretty as it could be, whether it’s cutting in the grass, or whether it is tearing down blighted buildings. Your thoughts on how you might change that and make this town more appealing.
Garnett Johnson: You know, I think that’s one of the most important topics as it relates to economic development. I’ve always said that one of the least expensive things you can do, that’s not taxing to the taxpayers is just a simple litter program. I’ve already pledged that we’re gonna clean up the city. We’re gonna create a program that has enforcement to it. Our roadways are so important as we bring economic development opportunities, and we need to do that. We need to continue to remove blight. But before we could sell this city to anybody, we have to show everyone that we care ourselves and let’s get it cleaned up. So on the first day, the first week, we’re gonna start having litter campaigns. Let’s get it clean.
Brad Means: Let me ask you this, it’s the same question, how can you clean up Augusta? But because you know a little about city government, every other night on the news, I report that we have about $11 million left over in pandemic relief money. It seems like that would cut all of the grass and tear down all of the buildings forever. Can we access that to do that? And just overall, how would you make Augusta nicer?
Steven Kendrick: Well, certainly Augusta has some options with the pandemic money. But I think it comes down to priorities and will of the commission and the mayor. I think that your original question in cleaning up our city is of utmost importance. I’ve gone on record in saying that Augusta should look prettier not just one day a week, but the other 51 weeks count as well. But it’s gonna take a commission and a mayor who makes that a priority. It’s kind of interesting when you bring people in your home, and I mean our home being the city, and they coming down gateways and they see the ragged condition they’re in. So I’m just committed to making sure Augusta looks better. We call ourselves the Garden City, and have for some time, and yet we’ve done nothing to reach that type of level. I think it’s one of those things, when I talk about difference day one, that makes an immediate impact on citizens. They need to see people actually cleaning our roadways, but they need to see ’em cleaning our roadways not in the middle of the day, but let ’em see ’em when they’re on their way home, when people can see that we’re actually out here doing the types of things that need to be done, that commitment brings a new spirit, brings a new energy and I’m committed to making sure we’re cleaner as much as I can.
Brad Means: Mr. Johnson, let me ask you this, and it may be an unanswerable question, so I don’t wanna be unfair. But what do you do when you say, “I noticed the grass alongside Gordon Highway is too high, go cut it.” The department head says, “Mayor Johnson we’d love to, but we don’t have the funding, or a bunch of people called out sick, or they’re still working remotely because of the pandemic.” How do you say again, please go mow the grass?
Garnett Johnson: Well, I think you have to be very diplomatic about it. But one thing that I’ve called for is an efficiency and operational review of every city department. We kind of need to understand how our dollars are flowing into our county coffers. I think we need to reinstate a land and grounds crew. Right now, the City of Augusta is receiving a form of welfare through our community foundation where they maintain five of our gateways. I think that’s totally unacceptable. We need to give them some help. And under my leadership, I will make sure that we get them some help to brighten up and clean up our gateways, to show people that are entering our city that we really care.
Brad Means: All right, Mr. Kendrick, I need some advice from you. We, the people, need some advice from you. Tap into your tax commissioner experience and help us get over the sticker shock that we felt when we opened our recent assessments and saw that the value of many homes in Augusta has gone up. Now we fear that September deadline of paying your taxes. What can be done as far as appealing those assessments and how likely will we be successful?
Steven Kendrick: Great question. And I’m glad that you mentioned that those were tax assessments that comes from the board of assessors.
Brad Means: Right, wasn’t y’all, yeah.
Steven Kendrick: Not the tax commissioner’s office, we’re just great at collecting. First of all, I think there could have been a little bit better communication between the assessor’s office to both the tax commissioner’s office and the board of commissioners that this change was coming, this estimate of value increase was coming. But I encourage all citizens to make an appeal if they feel like their new value is something that is not really within their belief of where it should be. People have that right each and every year. These assessment notices go out each and every year, they’re required by the state of Georgia to go out prior to submitting a digest. And so if yours is outta line, you should appeal to the Board of Assessors and even have the ability to go all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court if you can prove your case. It is imperative that the Board of Assessors hear what you think that market value is. Now, if you listen to them, they’ll say that we have been traditionally all undervalued for some time. And because of that, we’re just catching up to what the true value should be. But that doesn’t help me, nor you, or many of the others, who are gonna see that increase. And so I suggest that they do appeal if they feel as such and make sure their voice is heard in that way, because that part of government still works as well.
Brad Means: All right, thank you for that. And, Mr. Johnson, let me ask you this. It’s about your business experience. And both gentlemen have vast business experience. The Kendricks are well respected in this town, Mr. Johnson has launched a business from the ground up that continues to flourish. How can that experience, what you’ve learned from when you said to your wife, “hey, I’m gonna do this”, to the point you are now, how’s that help you when you’re face to face, with say, the next Mercedes, or Kia, or somebody who’s thinking about setting up shop, maybe in Richmond county? How can you look across the table from them and tap into that?
Garnett Johnson: That’s easy. Business experience is that we tend to take a more conservative approach, one that stands on the side of taxpayer. I have the experience serving on the Georgia Department of Economic Development where Georgia for eight years has been the number one state in business. I tell everybody, not only am I in the room, I’m at the table to get those decisions done. As mayor, I’m gonna be the number one cheerleader at the table as I get to continue to remain to serve on that board. So we’re gonna try to collaborate more locally with the Augusta Economic Development Authority with me pushing from the top at the state level. I think it’s gonna be great for Augusta.
Brad Means: Let me stay with you for this next question, I’ll go to Mr. Kendrick with it as well. It’s about when we have these announcements that there are gonna be these huge concerts in Augusta. Remember Master’s Week, you know, all the biggest stars on earth were gonna come here? Then we had Katy Perry a few years ago who was gonna play in a field in Hephzibah. But it’s always a letdown, not to mention the fact that it’s so difficult to get your money back in some cases. Garnettt Johnson, how can we make sure that these folks don’t come into our town and try to trick us or sike us with these big announcements only to never show up?
Steven Kendrick: Well, I think it takes leadership, someone who has experience in negotiating very difficult and intense situations, someone who knows how to not be taken advantage of. Me having a business background, I always vet every opportunity before we make any grand announcement. I think it’s important to do your homework, I think it’s important to do your due diligence. And then before you make any announcement, making sure that all of your Is are dotted and your Ts are crossed.
Brad Means: What do you think? Because it does seem so exciting at first, and we’ll talk about it on the news desk, we’ll make these big announcements and say, “buy your tickets now” and then it never happens. Mr. Kendrick, what can be done to make sure that if somebody says they’re coming, they’re coming?
Steven Kendrick: Well in the latest one, which you hope that the facilities in which they’re had would’ve been in a little bit better shape, that seemed to be the reason why the promoter said they couldn’t do it. I think you do your due diligence, I think you follow all that needs to be done in order to make sure that the company that’s coming is reputable. These type of things happen sometimes with the James Brown Arena, and Global Spectrum who comes there, these things happen. But for us as a community, I don’t think we can give up and lose hope. We need those types of entertainment things in Augusta, we need Augusta to be more vibrant, we need Augusta to be the kind of place people want to visit, people want to stay. And those are important parts of that puzzle in making August of that type of city.
Brad Means: Let me ask both of y’all this, and we’re running out of time so we’ll try to keep our answers tight, the James Brown Arena, voters said, no, we’re not trying to pay a quarter billion dollars for a new arena. So the Civic Center of Authorities, the Coliseum Authority is regrouping. Will we ever have a new JBA and who’s gonna pay for it? Steven Kendrick, we’ll start with you.
Steven Kendrick: Well, I certainly hope so. I think the mix for how it should be paid should be altered. The original one was just on taxpayers backs. I think there’s a mix that can have it between sales tax, other types of fees that could pay for the primary portion of that arena and be more palatable to the folks who want to attend. But I’m certainly hoping, we need something like that as a centerpiece in our downtown Augusta. I think our downtown is thriving, I think it needs that as a jewel to help continue to make it the epicenter of what goes on. And I’m very hopeful that the Coliseum Authority comes up with a financing package that residents can vote on and then accept and make sure that we get the type of entertainment options that we need.
Brad Means: And same question, will we have a new JBA? And just address the funding real quick.
Garnett Johnson: Sure. So under my leadership, I pledge that we will having a new James Brown Arena we just gotta come up with a funding mechanism that releases the burden from the taxpayer. I think we have to go back to the drawing board, come up with a financing way of getting it done that includes the voters through a special referendum. But however, we cannot tax the local taxpayers to get it paid for. We have to find another way.
Brad Means: You know, they say, they, that the underdog is favored in a runoff. Y’all, Garnett Johnson, who’s the underdog?
Garnett Johnson: You know, I’m gonna consider myself the underdog ’cause that’s why I’ve been my entire life. Growing up poor down in East Augusta with challenging upbringing, challenging environment. And that’s the position in which I’m very comfortable. I’m very comfortable being under that, but somehow we always win.
Brad Means: What about you?
Garnett Johnson: That’s where we are.
Brad Means: Steven Kendrick, I mean, it was tight. Are you really the underdog now?
Steven Kendrick: I absolutely am the underdog. We’re fighting like we are, we’re always working from behind. We certainly feel as though we’ve got something to prove to this community and trying to get that message out. And so, no matter if it’s him the underdog, I’m the underdog, what I’m gonna do is fight to have voters understand that government can work for them, we’ve demonstrated that and we wanna continue to do so.
Brad Means: Well, listen, I can’t thank both of you enough for being here, and really for running for mayor. Because think about all you folks watching out there, you stomp, and complain, and demand change, but these are the two gentlemen who are putting it all on the line and running for mayor. And I appreciate you both so much. Best of luck in the runoff and appreciate you a lot, Garnett Johnson, Steven Kendrick.
Garnett Johnson: Thank you, Brad, for this opportunity.
Steven Kendrick: Thank you very much, Brad.