Mayor Hardie Davis of Augusta, Georgia is back with us on The Means Report. We thought it would be appropriate because there’s a ton going on in our town right now by way of economic development, lots of projects in the works, lots of projects underway around the CSRA. We’ll talk to Mayor Davis about that. We’ll talk to him about the overall growth of Augusta, what he sees now, what the future could possibly hold. And, of course, when you have the leader of The Garden City here, you must cover the good, and the not-so-good. There is controversy right now in Georgia’s second-largest city. Sorry Columbus, Georgia but I will always say that we are Georgia’s second-largest city. When it comes to the Jamestown Community Center, when it comes to one of our commissioners, we’ll get to that.
Brad Means: First of all, I do wanna welcome back Mayor Hardie Davis. Thank you so much for taking time to be with us, we appreciate it.
Mayor Hardie Davis: Brad, thank you so much for having us, we’re excited to talk about what’s happening in our great city. And you are completely accurate. We are in fact, Georgia’s second-largest city.
Brad Means: Okay, good. I mean, I just love the way that sounds. It’s Atlanta and the rest of us. We’re really number one, if you don’t count Atlanta.
Mayor Hardie Davis: Absolutely, I couldn’t agree with you more. I think in all of our citizens’ minds, we are in fact number one. Home of the cyber security capital of the nation.
Brad Means: We are and it’s a great thing to be a part of right now.
Mayor Hardie Davis: True.
Brad Means: There’s a lot of excitement. There’s a ton of anticipation when it comes to certain projects in our area, the first-and-foremost being the depot project.
Mayor Hardie Davis: Absolutely.
Brad Means: For those who don’t know, this is downtown, on Reynold’s Street, right around the Sixth Street area. Fifth.
Mayor Hardie Davis: Fifth and Reynolds. It’s sandwiched between Fifth and Sixth Street on Reynolds.
Brad Means: On Reynolds. It’s gonna be great when it happens. Mayor, it feels like it’s never going to happen sometimes. We shouldn’t lose hope, should we?
Mayor Hardie Davis: No, we shouldn’t lose hope, Brad. And I think that’s a conversation that we’ve been having now for effectively, about four years now. It feels like forever. One of the things that I’ve shared with the Augusta Commission is that this will not be our SRP part number two. Where they talked, the GreenJackets talked forever, it seemed. And ultimately that project didn’t happen here. We’re very happy that it took place across the river in North Augusta because it actually adds value to this catalytic opportunity at the depot. It’s a piece of property the city’s owned for some fifty-plus years with little-to-no economic growth activity associated with it. And we’re very fortunate to have through a vetting process, an RFV process, identified a developer, Block Global and Retail Strategists who’s a partner with them, who’s brought to the commission a 94 million dollar project. The reality of it is, is it was a project the Downtown Development Authority, in partnership through an intergovernmental agreement entered into with the city of Augusta. They were asked to bring a project to the city. Margot Woodard and her team have done a fantastic job of bringing that project. It’s roughly a 94 million dollar project in two phases. The first phase being residential and retail component. Phase two would be an office complex. And the investment mix is about 14 million dollars of city funds that we believe is certainly supportive of the project. That represents 15% of the total cost. When you’re looking at a 94 million dollar project, if you look at a project of similar scope and size, I think oftentimes, in terms of what is already out of the ground, and that’s the Beacon Station project, formerly the Founder Project. That’s a 32 million dollar project, where the city effectively put 26 million in with almost six and a half million from the developer, as an incentive to the project.
Brad Means: So, is this how it works? Is this, for the uneducated, myself included, when you want to do something this big, you have to meet the developer at some point, not in the middle, but you have to meet him, maybe in this case at the 14 million mark. Is that just the way it works? ‘Cause critics would say we’re giving too much away.
Mayor Hardie Davis: Well, I think that’s certainly a narrative that we’ve heard in Augusta for far too long. One of our challenges is that the runway of conversation on deals like this is just too short in Augusta. There are those moments where you have an opportunity to incentivize a project, where the developer or investors put up substantial capital and cash in projects like this. I think that’s the case with this particular project. What the city of Augusta is doing is simply incentivizing that development. You look at, again, a historic piece of property, roughly 6.2 acres of land that we’ve seen zero investment in beyond what the city has done. We’ve got a 1.3 million dollar parking lot that’s there, that’s underutilized. I believe we’re much better than that. As a city, we have an opportunity for a transformative and quite frankly, catalytic project that will have a halo effect of creating opportunity for additional investment along Reynolds Street. We see what’s happened at the bookend at 13th and Reynolds with the Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center. That was a 126 million dollar project. And this gives us an opportunity to close that in the city and fuse that project with 16 million dollars for the development of a parking deck, again, that’s nontaxable property. We’re going to get taxes from this investment at the depot, which is important for the city of Augusta. Today, at 1.8 million in terms of value, for the 6.2 acres, if it were being taxed at 26,000 in terms of taxes, at 34 million dollars, or a 40 million dollar project, you’re talking about roughly, about 700,000 dollars in taxes. But when you look at the full 94 million dollar investment that’ll take place on that piece of property, you’re talking about 1.7 million dollars in terms of taxes that we’ll be able to gain, not with standing effect, that you’ve got sales taxes, you’ve got jobs. It’s gonna be tremendous for the city of Augusta.
Brad Means: Right, the return will be there one day.
Mayor Hardie Davis: Oh, absolutely.
Brad Means: When will we drive by it and be able to see that something is going on months, years?
Mayor Hardie Davis: Well, right now, all of the documents have been sent into the city of Augusta. They are waiting, we are waiting for a proforma that will be sent in as well. That further speaks to the capacity of the developer to deliver the project. I anticipate that will be in here within the next week. But all of the other associated documents to move forward, it’s my expectation that we will move to groundbreaking, for this project in late October.
Brad Means: Wow.
Mayor Hardie Davis: Or early November, based on what we know today. It is a project that can, will and should happen very quickly, in terms of being able to mobilize. Once the commission moves forward with the documents that are left to be signed off on, in terms of authorizing resolution, I anticipate the construction will begin to mobilize very quickly. Again, I’m anticipating late October, early November for us to have a ground break.
Brad Means: We’ve been covering some stories, recently on Channel Six about violence downtown.
Mayor Hardie Davis: Sure.
Brad Means: Now, I will say this, the common thread that seems to run through a lot of the violence downtown, and I’m not saying that there’s a ton, is that it happens super late at night.
Mayor Hardie Davis: Sure.
Brad Means: And so my question to you is, is downtown safe, as long as you and your family go during normal hours?
Mayor Hardie Davis: Well, I think downtown is safe at any hour. When you look at, again, just in my short time, tenure as Mayor, over these last four years, we’ve had one single incident that’s happened in downtown, that was fairly significant in nature. I know most recently that was an event that people talked about. In the late or wee hours of the morning. But, downtown is safe when you look at the statistics of, since our Sheriff has taken office, crime, particularly the violent crimes have continued to take a downturn in the city of Augusta, since 2012. Those statistics continue to bear that out. In particular downtown is a very safe place to bring your family, whether it’s young or old or like, you can also think about the increased law enforcement presence in terms of downtown. We’ve beefed our presence in downtown, just because of the activity that you see when you look at the investment, again, the Cyber Innovation and Training Center. When you look at the fact that we’ve had an increase in hospitality and tourism in terms of downtown, more restaurants are opening, with more to slated. We’ve had a new hotel that’s opened up, with others that are soon to break ground as well that we know about that will be taking place. So, I think that downtown is safe. Augusta in general is a fairly safe city when you compare us against other mid-sized cities in America. It’s something that we’re proud of. It’s something that I talk about as I travel across the country talking about Augusta as a destination, as a place of choice. So, I’m not worried. We spend time in downtown. My nieces and nephews who are college age students, they spend time, they know when to get home at an appropriate time.
Brad Means: Sure, yeah.
Mayor Hardie Davis: ‘Cause you don’t want them out late, but again, it’s safe. Augusta is safe.
Brad Means: Let me ask you about this. Downtown is getting a lot of love.
Mayor Hardie Davis: Absolutely.
Brad Means: And we talked about that a lot during this first segment.
Mayor Hardie Davis: Sure.
Brad Means: What about other parts of Augusta? Where do you see growth coming in? How do you work it, so everybody gets their fair share?
Mayor Hardie Davis: That’s one of the messages that we shared from day one that we believe in this message of one Augusta. It’s not just a message to make people feel good but it’s something that I passionately believe in. That Augusta should be a city of opportunity for everyone. Where people want to live, to learn, to work, and to raise their families. Without question, there’s been focus in my administration, around the Gordon Highway corridor. It’s what I refer to as the cyber corridor. We’re not having a discussion about cybersecurity, or even being the cybersecurity capital of the nation, let alone the state of Georgia. Without that corridor called Gordon Highway. Much of that work, two billion dollars worth of activity on an annual basis taking place at Fort Gordon, whether it’s NSA Georgia, or whether it’s the new cyber command headquarters. All of those things happen because of what takes place between downtown and Gordon Highway. So there’s been a focus around the Regency Mall Corridor, we had a conversation about perhaps building an arena there. We’ve since shifted and agreed with what the citizen voter wanted, and that is to build it at its current location,
Brad Means: And you’re okay with that?
Mayor Hardie Davis: Right I’m okay with that. What I want to see happen is that we move very quickly in mobilizing, having plans that we can share with people about where the arena is going to be built in terms of downtown. While at the same time, there’s still a renewed and a energized focus around what investments make great sense. In terms of the Regency or the cyber corridors we referred to it. I think that there are some opportunities for hotel investment. I’ve said all along that there’s an opportunity for family or residential investments from a single and a multifamily perspective. What many people forget Brad is that the city went first. We made an investment of moving our transit operations and maintenance facility from downtown. That’s a $22 million investment, the largest of its size, in the last three decades in the city of Augusta in terms of that corridor, something that we’re all very proud of. It’s a state of the art facility.
Brad Means: Yeah, but do you ever see or hear from a developer or hotel chain or restaurant that says I want to be near a transit facility?
Mayor Hardie Davis: What I hear is that this is a fabulous location. You’re talking about in its current state, one million square feet of floor space. That’s nothing more than a shell of what it once was. It provides a number of opportunities. There are certainly been conversations about movie studios. Augusta has taken great strides in terms of film in Augusta now, the work that Jennifer Bowen, under the leadership of Dennis Brown and that entire team are doing just a few weeks ago in Hollywood for the HollyShorts Festival, where we talked specifically with a number of movie producers who are very keen on what’s happening in Augusta. So I’m anticipating not only will we have a discussion about what type of development can and will take place there along the Regency Mall Corridor, but there are things that we will continue to do as a city to further enhance and incentivize development in that area.
Brad Means: If you can get a movie studio at the Regency Mall site and get this 100 million dollar depot, are you the mayor of the century and what a legacy right? I mean it could happen though.
Mayor Hardie Davis: Well, all of those things can happen. They really could. You know, from a legacy standpoint, people ask me that all the time. And for me, being able to serve with integrity, with honor, and represent our city, not just at a local or state stage, but a national stage to talk about what is happening in our city, the renaissance that continues to take place and has over the last four and a half, five years. I think that’s a legacy enough. But these things would simply just be icing on what’s already happened.
Brad Means: We’re talking to Mayor Hardie Davis of Augusta, Georgia here on The Means Report, we will continue to cover things going on in the Garden City good and controversial when we come back in just a moment.
Brad Means: Welcome back to The Means Report. Mayor Hardie Davis is my special guest today. And we were talking about economic development downtown and throughout the city of Augusta, Gordon highway, that area. Mayor, before we get off that topic, there are concerns nationwide that a recession could be coming. Might that temper some of this growth we’re looking at?
Mayor Hardie Davis: Well, one of the things that we’re very fortunate about our position not only in the state, but quite frankly the nation, historically, our economy has been a three legged stool, medicine, manufacturing and the military. But we’ve been very fortunate to add a fourth leg and that cyber innovation and technology. So that and when you look at what the economist reports are for our city, we’re less than 1% likely to have a recession in 2020. I think that bodes well for our economy. We’ll continue to see an uptake in terms of people being employed, and a downturn in terms of unemployment numbers. That’s something that I think we can all be very proud of. I’m excited about it. So it lets citizens know Augusta is a place of choice. People wanna be here.
Brad Means: If I’m thinking about bringing my company here, or my family, for that matter, and I Google Augusta, Georgia, and I see that one of your commissioners is being investigated by the FBI of all people. Might that make folks not wanna come here? And what can we do about at least the optics of this whole thing with Sammie Sias, the commissioner who’s being investigated, and the controversy surrounding him and the community center that he used to run?
Mayor Hardie Davis: Well, I think it’s always a challenge for communities. This is the nature of the state of play, which we find ourselves in. And it’s not just isolated to Augusta, these things happen in cities across America. What I think it’s important to note is that these are allegations at this point. In America, we enjoy the tremendous benefit of being innocent until proven guilty. And I think that same holds true in the case of Commissioner Sammie Sias. We believe that from an object standpoint, we’ve taken the appropriate steps as an Augusta Commission. The government moved very swiftly to remove Commissioner Sias from Jamestown and also his role. And being a part of the Aviation Authority. And those other individuals who were named in this conversation. We then reached out to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. So there’s been a tremendous level of transparency in terms of what our actions are as the Augusta Commission. We were very deliberative about those four steps that we took in terms of engaging the appropriate officials around the allegations. And again, I state very forcefully that those are allegations at this point.
Brad Means: No they are and that’s fair, that needs to be mentioned. Would you be more comfortable as a governing body or less embarrassed or whatever if he quit?
Mayor Hardie Davis: Well, I don’t think that that’s for us to determine. He was duly elected by the citizens of District Four. Some 30,000 people who had an opportunity to choose a candidate of their choice. He was their candidate and as such, until he has been found guilty of some farrier, moral turpitude issues, he will continue to enjoy the benefit of being an Augusta Commissioner. It’s unfortunate that we find ourselves having this conversation, and we will manage it and navigate through it, and allow the appropriate officials to do their investigation of said allegations. And if there is found something that has merit, then it will be adjudicated in the courts of law as it should be.
Brad Means: We lost a sweet child Melquan Robinson. He was electrocuted at a local park. And that investigation and the lawsuit from his family is continuing as we speak. How safe are our parks? What has the city done to make them not dangerous to all people who use them?
Mayor Hardie Davis: Well again, I think in light of the litigation that’s before us, there are things that we can speak to, and that is that all of our parks and community centers have had a thorough assessment. While doing those assessments, we were able to begin mitigating any concerns at the facilities that were outliers. In the case of the Fleming Park, there’s additional work that needs to be done there. And as a city, we’re moving aggressively to be able to do those things. But we have to do those things in concert of the current campaign and litigation that’s out there.
Brad Means: I’ll get in trouble if I don’t ask you about the Lock & Dam. Do you have any indication that that is going to end in our favor? That is to say that we’re gonna keep our river levels where they are and keep everybody happy with the decision on Lock & Dam.
Mayor Hardie Davis: Well, one of the things that’s a bit frustrating for me, and I’m sure many of our citizens is that, we submitted public comments as we were required to by the deadline. And we have yet to hear from the Corps of Engineers, which is disappointing. The latest that I am aware of is that there have been a series of conversations between our governor, the Corps of Engineers and Governor McMaster in South Carolina. I met with the governor along with DOT Board Member Don Grantham and another representative on 23 May of this year to talk about our concerns. The governor again has since had a meeting with the Corps of Engineers. I am hoping that all of those parties involved to include our non federal sponsored Georgia Ports Authority will see fit to make a decision that’s consistent with all of the communities around this, Columbia County, North Augusta, Aiken, Burke and Richmond County, we all adopted resolutions indicating that we believe option one dash one was the highest and best alternative. It was consistent with what we believe the interpretation of the 2006 Wien act was that the pool was to be maintained at a level of 114.5 at the date of enactment of the Wien legislation. And so to that end, what I’m expecting to see happen is that our partners to include our governor, I know that this is the position of South Carolina and their stakeholders, that that is what they want to see, an option that’s consistent with that. I don’t have any indication from the Corps that that’s not going to be one of these options that are strongly considered. I’ve heard more recently just loose discussions that there may be other options. What we do know and I think all of our citizens should be fully aware of this, the drawdown revealed to the Corps and to our citizens, that the option that they were proposing, 260 is a complete failure.
Brad Means: Yeah, you think they noticed that before?
Mayor Hardie Davis: Absolutely, they know that. That’s why they’ve had conversations about removing the training wall. And going back to the drawing board about doing additional things. We’re going to continue to press. We as a city stand firm with our partner, North Augusta Mayor Bob Pettit. He and I have been very clear that our position has been consistent with option one dash one. And until such time that we are told by our governors, that that’s different than what their posture is, we’re gonna continue to move in that direction.
Brad Means: Yeah, but the Corps not responding to me strikes me as somewhere between disrespectful of the passion that this community has for this project and an indication from the Corps that we’re gonna do what we want at the end of all this anyway. We shouldn’t be pessimistic at this point, should we or should we ’cause we’d love a response from ’em. We’d love them to recognize our enthusiasm for this.
Mayor Hardie Davis: Well, I couldn’t agree with you more. When you look at again, Riverside Village at SRP Park. That’s $232 million worth of investment. When you look at $126 million of investment, just across the river, a stone’s throw at the Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center. And what we’ve talked about in terms of the depot project, we can ill afford to have a ditch. Those types of investment warrant the Corps of Engineers, they warrant Governor Kemp and Governor McMaster working in concert to make sure that the needs of our communities are met. Failure to do that would be just a complete abdication of responsibility from the standpoint of these are cities that drive their economies. When we tout Georgia being the number one place to do business in the country. People are coming here to do business. And as such that’s why I think it’s so important for our leaders, our chief executive for the state of Georgia, and likewise Governor McMaster in South Carolina to understand clearly what’s taking place in our cities of North Augusta and Augusta and make certain that the Corps of Engineers moves in concert with meeting those needs.
Brad Means: All right, we have about five topics left. Our time is up, please come back.
Mayor Hardie Davis: I will do that.
Brad Means: Well we appreciate the information that you did provide us. Absolutely Mayor Hardie Davis of Augusta, Georgia, some good info today on a lot of hot topics around town.