“The Masters” and so much more
Business View Magazine interviews Odie Donald II, City Administrator of Augusta, Georgia, for our focus on Economic Development in U.S. Cities
Every April, “The Masters” – the first major professional golf championship of the year – is held at Augusta National Golf Club. A collective hush occurs with each putt and swing as the best in the world vie for the treasured green jacket. The gorgeous magnolia and dogwood blooms and, of course, everyone’s favorite golf celebrities captivate millions of virtual fans around the globe.
In other aspects, the City of Augusta, Georgia is ‘master of its own realm’, with so much more to offer. Business View recently spoke with Odie Donald II, Augusta City Administrator, for his insights into the past, present, and future of this glorious southern destination.
BVM: What makes Augusta such a special place to visit, live in, and do business?
Donald: “When it comes to Augusta, there are so many amazing things, so many quality natural advantages that don’t exist anywhere else. The Masters is what the world recognizes about Augusta and it is one of our biggest attractions, but it is one of many.
“Augusta is the single greatest economic opportunity for our state. The city is laid out as well as, or better than, just about any city in the southeastern U.S. and our ease of travel is unrivalled. In three hours, you can get to just about any major metropolitan city in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, along with the Atlanta airport – the busiest in the U.S. Fort Gordon is within our city limits, and the Savannah River, the greatest economic driver in our state, flows right through our borders.
“What makes Augusta special is its rich and diverse history. It is the second oldest city in our union – the first settlement is Savannah and the second one, a short while later, was Augusta. This represents the true cradle of America. Hundreds of years later Augusta remains a place of great opportunity and a catalyst for growth and change in the south.”
BVM: How is the city evolving in the midst of that growth?
Donald: “Our current population is approximately 200,000; we’re the second largest municipality in the state. The Augusta metropolitan region is one of the fastest growing in Georgia. That status has required us to up our game to ensure competitiveness when making decisions on city services, quality of life outlets, and tourist attractions.
“Augusta is also the world cybersecurity capital. The Georgia Cyber Center here in Augusta has increased our need for a strong, educated, and productive workforce. Cybersecurity and IT and other unique supporting fields are now used to mitigate activities like the Colonial Pipeline hack, and Augusta is now front and center in those mitigation efforts.
“Nationally, there are very few major metropolitan cities that are centered around a unique body of water. So how we maintain and support the river, our own stormwater and drainage activities, clean drinking water implementation… and leveraging this geographic advantage serves as a much bigger part of our operation than these factors might be somewhere else.”
BVM: Is environmental sustainability a high priority?
Donald: “Absolutely! We’re extremely proud of our new sustainability activities. While key activities are around water management and energy efficiency, we recently included a few more diverse initiatives for the benefit of our citizens. For example, we entered into an energy savings performance contract that provides a budget neutral approach primed to result in more than $25 million in building improvements, reducing energy and water use and increasing operational efficiencies. That’s the centerpiece of our sustainability effort. Those efforts have paved the way for a real opportunity to upgrade our facilities and capitalize on savings generated from lower energy consumption without tapping into the general fund.
“As we explored how to become a more sustainable, responsive, and responsible government – especially as we begin to exit the pandemic – we launched Green Augusta. It’s another sustainability effort that’s branded to ensure our public knows which activities we’re pushing forward.
“Our Green Augusta initiative expands on the previous investments under the energy performance contract. Through Green Augusta we will transition 20 percent of our non-emergency fleet to alternative fuel vehicles. That will ultimately reduce our carbon footprint environment, improve operational efficiency, and allow us to save money and energy, while extending the useful life of our fleet over the next decade. Combined with our building improvements, Augusta is really leading the way in the region on how we look at sustainability and efficient government.”
BVM: What investments are being made in infrastructure projects?
Donald: “I think Augusta may be the most aggressive municipality in the country in focusing on improving our residents’ quality of life and infrastructure. Back in 2012, Augusta was one of the first to approve the Transportation Investment Act (TIA), which was a 1 percent tax that focused on improving our transportation-related infrastructure. More recently, in June of 2020, we approved the second TIA installment. It passed at 71 percent and that really showed a commitment by our residents to take control of their quality of life.
“The new TIA brings $923 million in transportation infrastructure projects over a 10-year period. This is an extraordinary opportunity for Augusta. I’m really excited about the impact of the TIA projects that have already been completed. We have a $4 million, old Waynesboro Rd. bridge replacement that has been completed, four small bridges over the Augusta Canal, which serves as a centerpiece of our waterway. Improving those bridges and making these investments was vital to our infrastructure.
“But we also have new encouraging transportation projects in the works. A $3 million replacement of the Broad St. bridge – the heartbeat of downtown – is going to be transformational. One of the most attractive and talked about projects is an $11 million restoration of our 5th St. bridge. This is vital because the bridge is being transformed into a pedestrian walkway between our neighbors in North Augusta, South Carolina and a vital gateway into the city. In addition, part of our SPLOST8 (Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax) project includes amenities that create an opportunity to live, work, and play in that area.
“That type of investment will serve as a destination for residents and people from all across the United States. These projects take time, and there are quite a few of them, but they are really key cogs in our future.”
BVM: Can you share some highlights on what’s going on downtown?
Donald: “I am beyond excited about the partnership we have between our business attraction and retention entities. The Augusta Economic Development Authority serves county-wide; the Downtown Development Authority, which focuses on ensuring we have a vibrant downtown, is an excellent partner; and we have the Convention & Visitors Bureau that makes sure tourism activities align with our economic development activities. Including the City and the Augusta Chamber, we now have five groups working in lock-step to retain, attract and support businesses in their growth.
“In fact, Augusta was just named by Yahoo Finance as 17th out of 150 of the top major metropolitan cities with the lowest cost of living and the greatest return on investment for residents (from the city taxes they pay). That’s a testament to Augusta and the work of those four entities in concert with the city. In the midst of the pandemic, people elsewhere cut back on their use of the downtowns, but our leadership and elected officials were focused on having a business-friendly and inviting community and that has been crucial for Augusta and our partners.”
BVM: How is your housing inventory?
Donald: “There are very few houses available for sale in the entire county. Housing is one of our biggest challenges and opportunities. We have been good partners with developers supporting the creation of diverse single family and mixed-use housing, including rental units. Our Mayor and Commission recently approved a real estate development consisting of 66 units where only seven of those are non-affordable housing units. That project, called Kendrick Place, is extremely encouraging at a time when affordable housing options are scarce. We’ve also created a pathway to make that area more attractive by bringing on a market-rate community called Beacon Station.
“The Commission also recently passed the first comprehensive blight ordinance in Augusta’s history. This gives us another tool to mitigate the negative impacts of blight on our residential housing stock and ensures that our dormant commercial properties have the necessary improvements to come back onto our tax roles and serve as catalysts to improve communities. Those combined efforts help us change the face of our housing and commercial markets, while remaining affordable. I think that’s the piece that is extremely important to our long-term future.”
BVM: How would you sum up the focus of the city going forward?
Donald: Affordability combined with ease of travel access, an attractive business environment for the relocation and expansion of business and industry make Augusta ‘where you want to be.’ The visionary leadership of Augusta’s 84th Mayor Hardie Davis and our visionary Commission have our region on course for a wonderful future.”
AT A GLANCE
What: A beautiful, historic, and progressive southern city; population 200,000
Where: Richmond County, central eastern border of Georgia