Augusta/Richmond County: From Canals To Computers
Benefiting From Technologies Old And New
Augusta is known worldwide as the home of one of golf’s greatest tournaments, the Masters. However, there’s far more to this city, located some two hours east of Atlanta, than green fairways and green jackets.
Augusta also is home to the Medical College of Georgia (MCG), which has assumed new relevance as Georgia’s population ages and the state faces a doctor shortage. Those factors caused the State Board of Regents to authorize a number of new projects for MCG.
The area also is home to Georgia Power’s nuclear power plant, Plant Vogtle (in adjacent Burke County), and plans for two new nuclear reactors there were greenlighted by the Georgia Public Service Commission this year.
MCG, which has a billion dollar annual impact on this area of some half a million people (double that if you count MCG Health Inc.’s clinical facilities), is buttressed by 11 hospitals. Plant Vogtle is just one element of an alternative energy revolution planting new resources statewide. Together they are elements of Augusta’s multifaceted identity.
“If you’re going to be sick, you want to be in Augusta,” says Jonathan Goolsby, marketing specialist at Medical College of Georgia-Life Science Business Development and Innovation Center.
University Hospital recently completed a new 188,000-square-foot Heart and Vascular Institute, part of the hospital’s $93.6 million renovation and expansion project. Doctors Hospital is investing $40 million to expand the Joseph M. Still Burn Center, the largest burn center in the United States and the third largest in the world. More than 2,000 patients were treated there last year, including some 30 workers injured when Imperial Sugar Refinery in Port Wentworth exploded.
A Healthy Community
This teaching city can also provide lessons in reconnecting divided neighborhoods and residents.
In September 2008, the Augusta Commission voted to provide $10 million to the University System of Georgia to purchase 15 acres contiguous to the MCG campus for expansion. A new School of Dentistry will be built on the property, which was formerly the site of the Gilbert Manor public housing complex owned by the Augusta Housing Authority. Plans also call for a new School of Medicine facility, the Medical Education Commons. The expected cost of the Medical Education Commons is $105 million; the new dental school is budgeted for $112 million.
Gilbert Manor was home to some 3,000 families in its 60-year lifespan. The Augusta Housing Authority will spend $6.9 million of the $10 million the state Board of Regents paid for the site to develop affordable housing at other sites; the remainder is being spent to demolish and prepare the property for development.
In addition to the dental school, MCG Health Inc., which operates the university’s clinical facilities, is building a $31 million, 57,000-square-foot outpatient cancer center on the property, and research funding is projected to increase to some $80 million in 2010, creating the need for even more space.
While addressing the state’s doctor shortage, MCG’s business incubator is also invigorating Augusta’s economy.
“On the business front, the clinical center will actually be treating cancer patients right across the street from the cancer research building, so new technologies can come right out of the lab into the clinic,” Goolsby says. “The Georgia Medical Center Authority, which has a second stage biotech incubator, is just two blocks away from our MCG incubator, which is a big draw for us trying to bring startups in.”
In fact, the MCG Life Sciences Innovation Center recently lured Dr. Renato Rozenthal away from New York Medical College to start his research application, Cryo Bio USA, which specializes in finding alternative treatments for neurological disorders.
“They actually have $1 million in backing, which is unusual in this economy,” Goolsby says. Augusta’s low cost of living helped Rozenthal, who was visiting to collaborate with MCG researchers, decide to leave academia to become an entrepreneur.
“He was thinking of doing it in New York, but saw our facility and our price and couldn’t believe it. I really feel like Augusta is poised to be Georgia’s biocenter for life science and business,” Goolsby says. “We really have a lot of the right ingredients to bring something fantastic out of it.”
Augusta’s medical amenities have always complemented its rich quality of life, and that synergy is erupting this year into badly needed road improvements. “Augusta is a major medical center for the southeastern United States, so we have plenty of ambulances, helicopters and private vehicles traveling to Augusta for medical attention,” says Development Authority of Richmond County Executive Director Walter Sprouse.
Easy access to medical facilities is hampered, however, by railroads, limited access highways and the recently rewatered Augusta Canal, which flows through downtown. “The new St. Sebastian Way, a major new construction project, will bridge over the canal, under the Calhoun Expressway bridge, make a turn alongside the railroad tracks and cross the canal again to get to the medical area – just like a rollercoaster,” Sprouse says.
GDOT is also widening Interstates 20 and 520, and expanding the interchange of the two major highways. Alexander Drive will be widened soon to connect Riverwatch with Washington Road, making for road construction the likes of which this town has never seen.
The new construction, on and off the MCG campus, could be considered part of an overhaul that also includes a new Augusta Tomorrow Master Plan for downtown. It targets communities such as North Augusta, which is located in South Carolina, as an area for growth.
“It’s an amazing document,” says Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver of the Augusta Tomorrow plan, which includes futuristic renderings of a park connecting MCG to downtown, redevelopment along the canals that read like a mix of Amsterdam and Venice, and an expanded Augusta Commons that would put more greenspace downtown.
“[The plan is] more comprehensive, inclusive and overlays with other downtown initiatives,” Copenhaver says. “Now the Downtown Development Authority has expanded their boundaries to fit with Augusta Tomorrow’s master plan, with the planning area also blanketed by a new wireless internet area covering four square miles.”
In spite of all the action, Augusta hasn’t been immune to the national housing slump. A new 140-room hotel complex will anchor the redevelopment of Augusta Commons.
“The economy soured it, so we shifted gears – there is money for job creation, so we’re trying to be creative,” says Downtown Development Author-ity Director Margaret Woodard. “We have another building in due diligence with 52 market rate apartments.”
The hotel is using new market tax credits, Woodard says, “which is complicated. But if we do it right, in combination with historic tax credits, job creation tax credits and our first Tax Allocation District, we’ll only have to finance $5 million for a $25 million project. We’re also issuing parking deck bonds, and there is HUD money out there for fair market rate housing.”
The DDA also is overseeing the conversion of the Fifth Street bridge to a pedestrian bridge in partnership with North Augusta, across the Savannah River. “When we changed our boundaries we tripled our size,” Woodard says.
Cooperation with Augusta’s South Carolina sister city is paramount, Copenhaver says. “South Carolina’s Savannah River Site [SRS] is investing billions into the local economy as we speak,” the former executive director of the Central Savannah River Land Trust says of the $1.6 billion stimulus package designed to help SRS dispose of nuclear waste – an effort projected to create 3,000 high-paying jobs.
Waste disposal is a concern at the SRS, which currently employs around 15,000. The site produced tritium, plutonium-239 and other materials used to make nuclear weapons from 1954 to 1991, when the United States stopped making atomic bombs; it still replenishes tritium, but the new administration’s stated goal is to clean up the site for good.
Planning For Growth
“It’s already happening,” Copenhaver says of the growth he sees coming the area’s way. “There’s no ‘if.’ We have to plan for the growth, after having very little growth for such a long time. It’s uniting the community. Historically the walls were held in place by those who profited from them being there; now, we’re tearing them down, and great things are happening.”
More synergies are coordinating to amplify the region’s workforce and work opportunities: In March, Fort Gordon, home of the U.S. Army Signal Center for Excellence, activated its 7th Signal Command, a new mission that will eventually be staffed with 240 people, 170 of which will be civilians.
“The 7th Signal Command provides oversight of all continental U.S. Army installation voice and data communications,” says Thom Tuckey, executive director of the Central Savannah River Area Alliance for Fort Gordon (CSRAA).”It will be commanded by Brig. Gen. Jennifer Napper, which adds a third general officer at Fort Gordon.”
The military positions will be transferred from other units, while most of the civilians will be new hires – primarily mid- to upper-level positions. That, Tuckey says, will be good for Augusta’s payrolls.
Fort Gordon also is on track to open its new $286-million, half-billion-square-foot National Security Agency complex in 2012. “They’re ahead of schedule and the building should be completed in early 2010. It is still scheduled to be fully occupied and operational in 2012,” Tuckey says. “The Army awarded a $28 million contract to an Ocilla company in May to build more trainee barracks. A new $4.6 million law enforcement center was completed last fall. The contract for a new $6.3 million child care center was awarded in June.”
The new NSA facility could create many new high-tech jobs and further position Richmond County as an intelligence hub for the military.
“Fort Gordon is like an Ivy League school for the military. Not a lot of people know that,” Sprouse says. As the military’s training center for information technology and the Army’s Signal School, it sees some of the brightest young people in the world who are stationed at Fort Gordon.
In fact Teleperformance, which administers Medicaid services to states, has been so impressed with Augusta’s workers that it recently added additional Florida-based accounts to the Augusta facility, which will create 200 new jobs in addition to the 250 workers hired since 2008.
“Teleperformance renovated an old Sam’s Club last February and ran out of space after just six months,” Sprouse says. “They just finished the new facility, then hired 130 more employees, which will nearly double their projected workforce in one year. They said the skill of the workforce in Augusta is just that good.”
Both companies, along with T-mobile, operate communications centers and are primed to take best advantage of Fort Gordon’s training of soldiers and civilians. ADP is so smitten with Augusta that it recently donated more than $600,000 to
Augusta State University, Paine College and Augusta Technical College to create scholarships for technology based curricula. The company’s new facility, which will include a gym, cafeteria, dry cleaners and a bank, will be LEED certified.
Augusta, after all, has a green reputation to maintain. Golf is one sport where the ecology makes a critical difference; in this case, a lot of money is at stake. Tourism – golf related and other forms – brings more than 1.5 million people, $366 million, 5,000 jobs and $11 million in taxes to Augusta annually.
Additionally, the Masters Tourna-ment, held each April, provides an excellent opportunity to showcase not only Augusta but the entire state to potential industry recruits.
It’s one tool in the box that Sprouse doesn’t take for granted. “We were lucky this year to have the opportunity to have site selection consultants from Washington, Pennsylvania and Boston come to the Masters,” he says. “It helps us to open the door to Augusta, and show our consultants and project managers that Augusta is an excellent place to build a new facility. The new companies benefit from a great workforce, low cost of living that is 78 percent of the national average, low housing costs that are an amazing 38 percent of the national average, and an excellent transportation network that is getting better every day.”
The fabled tournament also has opened the door for other forms of sports tourism – baseball legend Cal Ripken, Jr. is angling to build a multi-use stadium downtown for his professional team, the Augusta GreenJackets.
“One of the most exciting things to me is the prospect for ecotourism,” Copenhaver says. “It’s one of the fastest growing forms of tourism in the world, and we have the green infrastructure: Phinizy Swamp Nature Park, Augusta Canal Natural Heritage Area and the Savannah River. You can make a weekend out of getting on the river, going to the swamp and riding trails in the heritage area.”
Copenhaver oversaw the city’s greenspace program when it was more flush. He helped preserve two thirds of Butler Creek from Fort Gordon to Phinizy Swamp and is partnering with the Path Foundation to develop a trail that could ultimately connect 70 miles of paths in three counties in two states. “The potential for that project is huge,” he says.
The rewatered canals are beautiful spots for kayaking, and boating along the Savannah River looks fun. But can these environmentally sensitive attractions be reconciled with the big industrial nuclear military complexes just around the corner?
Copenhaver the environmentalist believes it must. “We have to embrace it,” he says of nuclear power. “Even from my background, I think it’s the best option.”
The passage this year of Senate Bill 31, which will allow Georgia Power to charge customers (starting in 2011) to develop new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle, put Georgia at the forefront of the federal administration’s new focus on alternative energy.
“Plant Vogtle, coupled with the SRS, could become the hub of a nuclear renaissance,” Copenhaver says. “It’s exciting that the SRS is being given stimulus money for the cleanup, because the faster they clean it up, the more uses you have for the site. I should say that this is really an alternative energy renaissance, but within that, this is the most important nuclear project in the U.S.”
Georgia Power has indicated that new hires at Plant Vogtle could top 3,000 during construction, with 500 high-paying positions. Here the region’s fabled work ethic will be especially important, as all eyes will be watching for slip-ups.
“Both Plant Vogtle and the SRS want to recruit locally, and have to replace an older workforce – they only need a high school degree, and once they’re trained as an operator, they could be making as much as six figures,” Copenhaver says. “Talk about economic development!”
There are no growth projections at this point, but Copenhaver anticipates Augusta’s first big population surge in years once all these different elements – Fort Gordon, MCG, and SRS/Plant Vogtle – start ramping up. And he emphasizes that Augusta’s new economy will offer something for everyone.
“Not everyone can get a college degree,” he says, “but now a kid coming out of Augusta Tech can go through the training and start making that kind of money. I expect to see a real influx of new residents. Augusta is a hub of opportunity at this point.”
Camille A. Price
Executive Vice President
Augusta Tomorrow, Inc.
City of Augusta
Development Authority of Richmond County
Richmond County, 199,486
Richmond County, 9.6 percent; Augusta-Aiken, SC MSA, 9.3 percent; Georgia, 9.5 percent
Median Household Income
Top Five Private Employers
Doctors Hospital, E-Z-GO Textron, Sitel USA, Covidien, International Paper
Development Authority of Richmond County, U.S. Census Bureau, Georgia Department of Labor