Mixing up the secret recipe in North Augusta
Editor’s note: This is the third in a series looking at growth in Aiken County. This story focuses on the City of North Augusta.
Cities are in the business of attracting new residents and North Augusta City Administrator Todd Glover said the city has the “secret sauce” for growth: recreation and public safety.
“It really boils down to, well, that means there’s a good quality of life and the people feel safe with their families. That’s a combination that’s hard to beat, so when people look to move to an area they want to know that one, their family’s safe and two, when they move there they have a quality of life. And so I think that’s the secret sauce for us,” Glover said.
North Augusta historian Milledge Murray said growth began with the founding of the city, which is only a short drive across a bridge from Augusta and around 15 miles from Aiken, in 1906, and got a big boom when the Savannah River Plant, now known as Savannah River Site, was built during the 1940s and ’50s.
Other factors that have contributed to the growth of North Augusta are the Clark’s Hill Reservoir and Dam, the success of Fort Gordon and the growing medical community, Murray said.
“North Augusta is a city that is well-planned and managed,” he said. “Teamwork with a focus on the betterment of the city is ingrained in leadership.”
What has caused recent growth in the City?
Glover said many, including he and his wife, have moved to North Augusta to “split the distance” between jobs.
“That’s how my wife and I came here in 2002, even before I was hired by the City 10 years later,” Glover said. “She worked on the Southside of Aiken and I worked in Columbia County and we said ‘let’s split the difference’ and we loved the quality of life here.”
Glover mentioned North Augusta as a bedroom community benefits from growth in surrounding areas, mentioning the large medical system in the area, as well as “big manufacturing wins” with the expansions at Bridgestone and AmbioPharm.
“One of the benefits for us is that things don’t have to necessarily happen in North Augusta; they can happen close by and we still benefit from it,” he said.
“Big thing happens in Aiken, we benefit; big thing in Augusta, we benefit; big things in Columbia County, we still benefit. I think geographically, we just kind of lucked up.”
Terra Carroll, president and CEO of the North Augusta Chamber of Commerce, also said the city benefits from its geographical location.
“Although a small community we are positioned in the middle of larger areas like Augusta and Aiken,” Carroll said.
“The charm that exists in North Augusta has an opportunity to pull potential customers that live in North Augusta, the surrounding communities as well as those traveling along I-20 and Aiken-Augusta Highway. The cyber industry will bring individuals of all ages, demographics and income levels. We need to be diverse enough in what we offer to attract everyone.”
How much growth are we talking?
The city’s population as of July 2017 was 22,930, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a 7.5 percent growth from 2010 numbers.
Also, waiting for new residents to move to the city, there are 1,300 “living units” slated for residential construction, Glover said. That number consists of around 900 building lots, with the rest being apartment units. That number doesn’t include the residences that will go in Highland Springs, a proposed development off Exit 5 on Interstate 20. Highland Springs includes between 1,500 and 2,000 planned lots.
The City’s valuation of new construction took a hit around 2007 due to the nationwide recession, Glover said.
“Having been here that whole time, not working in North Augusta but living here, you know it’s kind of that old saying that if you throw a frog in hot water it hops out, but if you slowly turn the temperature up he just stays there because he doesn’t detect the difference, and for us – to me at least, and I think for a lot of folks – the recession did not seem as bad here as what we saw on the news about going on in other parts of the country, but in looking back at our permits, it was really bad,” he said.
According to a chart Glover presented at the City’s February planning meeting, Envision, the total value of construction including commercial and residential was $62.2 million in 2007. By 2009, that number was down to around $17 million. New construction valuation was below $2 million in 2009, 2010 and 2012.
In 2016, total valuation rose to $61.7 million. In 2017, it almost doubled, landing at $119.8 million.
Arc of development
Glover said an arc can be drawn along the edge of the city where growth has happened geographically.
“If you go from Gregory Lake Road, take that arc through Exit 5, then continue across I-20 to the Highland Springs properties, that’s our growth corridor right there and we have literally thousands of available acres of development right now,” Glover said.
How can the City help with growth?
North Augusta held a planning meeting called Envision in February to look at future planning, and the City is planning a kind of Envision No. 2 for August to look at planning for growth.
“One of the areas that we’ll be concentrating on in that meeting is taking parts of our city, let’s say Exit 1, and then Exit 5, and then the Highland Springs property, Riverfront, Knox Avenue and take those areas that we’re projecting high growth and then measure them against what our core services are, kind of a report card for each area,” Glover said.
The City will look at how each of those areas is doing as far as access to Public Safety, parks and recreation, and water, sewer and road infrastructure.
Carroll mentioned Exit 1, Exit 5, Knox Avenue and downtown as places that restaurants or activities could be located.
Glover also said the City needs to look at its processes to make sure that existing and future businesses feel welcome and that the process is equitable and fair.
“You know, we need to make it easier for businesses to locate in North Augusta,” he said. “I think historically, we’ve had a reputation of not being an easy place to build either residential or commercial. We do have tough standards but I think they’re fair, but we need to work on that perception.”
The City is already looking to be able to provide quicker Public Safety response times for areas that are growing. They are looking to move Fire Station 1 closer to the center of the city, and the City has purchased land off Georgia Avenue to potentially locate the new station as well as a Public Safety Headquarters.
“As you see the growth, and I’m not just talking on the Riverfront, I’m talking everywhere, you see those new neighborhoods popping up, you talk about the new schools going in some of those areas, and the growth because of the Cyber Command Center is going to continue to grow here and everywhere in Aiken County,” said North Augusta Public Safety Chief John C. Thomas, “So we’re not by ourselves but we still have a due diligence to make sure we cover all those areas that are affected by people who live in the city limits of North Augusta.”
“We’re well into the 21st century and we have to plan for our future and the future is to build a Public Safety complex that people can be proud of and it’s apparent that we’re growing but we also want to provide the most quality service that we can provide.”
Living, working and playing on the river
One place with easy-to-spot growth is along the Savannah River at Riverside Village. Often called a “live, work, play environment,” Riverside Village, will include the new Augusta GreenJackets stadium that has already opened, as well as a Southbound Smokehouse barbecue restaurant, Sweetwater Brewing Company, Crowne Plaza Hotel, apartments and condos, plus other retail and dining stores.
Chris Schoen, managing principal for Greenstone Properties, the developer of Riverside Village, gave an update to City Council on the progress.
Schoen said he has a list of tenants for the retail spaces around the stadium, and is working on a way to roll out that roster. The two buildings at the Ironwood apartments will be opening in August and November 2018, and the hotel has a “delivery date” of December 2018.
Southbound Smokehouse and Sweetwater Brewery will be opening around late July, Schoen said.
Making the secret sauce work
Carroll said there are a few types of business that are needed and would do well in North Augusta. The businesses she mentioned are affordable fine dining for couples; sit-down family restaurants that aren’t buffets; attractions for children and teens such as a skating rink, arcade or indoor playground; activities for adults such as a painting or pottery center; and local downtown retail such as a gift shop, shoe repair, candy store or bookstore.
She also mentioned that a senior center and small arts venue for showing movies and showcasing local artists would both be useful.
Glover said it’s important to manage growth in order to maintain the bedroom community feel of the city.
Murray echoed what Glover said about quality of life and recreation in the city and the “secret sauce.”
“We are a city of sidewalks, Greeneway walking and biking trails, community activities center, recreation and activities center, tennis courts, parks, ball fields, Living History Park, Arts and Heritage Center, lots of churches and much more,” Murray said. “The community has primarily been residential but now offers every commercial entity that are normally associated with a city of our size in a planned fashion. All of these factors are important in the sustained growth of North Augusta.”