Growing Pains: City Developers Form Vision as Augusta Area Changes

April 11, 2018|

Deke Copenhaver knows he is often viewed as a cheerleader for Augusta, and he doesn’t mind. The way he sees it, Augusta is a good investment, plain and simple, with its low cost of living, good health care and high quality of life.

“People from all over the country are like, ‘Oh my gosh, we love your city!’” the former mayor said.

From 2005 to 2014, Copenhaver became particularly passionate about economic development and helped bring companies including ADP, Unisys and Rural Sourcing Inc. to Augusta.

“After leaving office, I thought that I still have value to add to the situation with regard to our economic development efforts,” Copenhaver said. “Not to get in the way or do anything to interfere with the efforts, but really to help supplement the efforts of different organizations like the Development Authority.”

Now, as a consultant through Copenhaver Consulting, he advises and aids the Augusta Economic Development Authority, giving him a role that he says allows him to focus fully on the issues he loves to deal with, ones that were only a few of his many worries while in office.

Meanwhile, the Augusta Economic Development Authority has a new leader guiding it into a period of transition as the city experiences some growing pains.

After Walter Sprouse retired as the head of the authority last fall (he oversaw $3 billion in investments and the creation of 15,000 jobs during his 15-year tenure), a search for his replacement ended in Clarksville, Tenn., where an economic developer named Cal Wray had managed to draw $850 million in investments from Google and LG Electronics for a new data center and manufacturing plant to the area.

Wray and Copenhaver bring different experiences to the table as they help the development authority move forward. But as each described his vision for growing the local economy by bringing new industries to Augusta and by empowering local businesses to succeed in the coming years, a few common ideals surfaced.

Augustans need to start embracing a unified mentality

While in office, Copenhaver pushed to locate the new Augusta GreenJackets stadium on the Georgia side of the Savannah River. It didn’t work out. SRP Park has officially been completed just across the river in North Augusta, much to the dismay of many Augustans who now find themselves fighting to keep James Brown Arena downtown.

The stadium felt like a huge loss for Copenhaver, but now there’s a different project rising on the same riverside site where he wanted to build a stadium, a project that will seal Augusta’s status as one of the world’s most important cybersecurity hubs: The Hull McKnight Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center.

In the end, Copenhaver said, when the authority brings new business prospects to Augusta, those prospects don’t see the dividing lines that Augustans have imposed upon themselves. They see one place.

“If you’ve got somebody looking to invest in Augusta, it doesn’t matter if you’re taking them across the river,” he said. “You’ve got the city skyline as a backdrop. I think people are starting to get that what’s good for Augusta is good for North Augusta and Columbia County and vice versa. We need to get over this mentality that someone’s going to be left behind, because that’s not going to happen.”

That includes south Augusta. Last year, Starbucks announced a $130 million expansion at Augusta Corporate Park on Mike Padgett Highway. Wray sees massive potential for further industrial development at the park, where Starbucks is currently the sole tenant.

In March, Wray told the development authority board that five companies are scouting the property for potential investment and that one of those would be a “very, very large investment.” The authority is marketing 21 sites over thousands of acres there.

Education, particularly in cybersecurity, has to be a priority

In an interview at last year’s TechNet Augusta conference — an annual conference that brings military personnel, government officials and entrepreneurs to Augusta to share ideas and discuss cyber warfare and workforce training — Army CIO Lt. Gen. Bruce Crawford stressed the importance of incorporating cyber education into school curriculum long before students reach college.

Copenhaver echoed Crawford’s urgent call for change, adding that he has already seen considerable progress.

“We need an educated workforce, and that starts in the elementary school — literally,” Copenhaver said. “Companies would prefer to hire locally. But with cyber, it’s like building a bridge while you’re walking across it, trying to figure it out as we go along. We can try to look at other communities, but what’s happening here is unique to our community.”

Meanwhile, Wray is still learning about a city that is new to him. Gaining an understanding of the workforce at Fort Gordon is near the top of his to-do list. He said the presence of 28,000 soldiers at Fort Campbell near Clarksville — and the soft skills and discipline they brought to the table — were a deciding factor in the decisions of both Google and LG to invest there.

“Sites are important, buildings are important,” Wray said. “That used to be the driving factor. Now, the driving factor is workforce. So, learning what the military component is, learning what the civilian component is, learning what our school system here in Richmond County can do and bringing all of those components together to understand the workforce here is the quickest way to get prospects and consultants to consider the community for investment in locations.”

A ‘thriving place’ strategy

Growth can be good, but it’s not always good if you don’t prepare for it. If you don’t prepare, Copenhaver said, you get run over by it.

“I’m interested in smart growth,” he said.

Smart growth, according to Copenhaver, was recruiting Costco to Augusta at the height of the Great Recession and giving 200 good jobs to local people.

Copenhaver, like many local developers, is bullish on downtown and wants to capitalize on developing the heart of the city the right way as it enters a new phase.

Both Copenhaver and Wray are concerned about the lack of downtown housing options. Augusta has a limited amount of time to fix that problem as workers will continue to move to the area from places like Washington, D.C., following the relocation of the U.S. Army Cyber Command.

Bryan Haltermann is currently developing two apartment buildings downtown, but Copenhaver thinks mixed-income housing downtown will be key.

“People hear affordable housing and they’re like, ‘Oh, they’re gonna move a bunch of poor people in,’” Copenhaver said. “It’s firefighters, policemen, teachers and students who need affordable housing. So I think there’s a real opportunity there, but we need housing options for everybody. That’s some of the investment I’m trying to recruit. There’s plenty of room for upscale housing downtown, too.”

And that includes some places that have been neglected in the past.

“I would say Harrisburg is going to become the funky, cool neighborhood,” Copenhaver said. “That’s going to happen, but we need to mitigate that, and we need to have a ‘thriving place mentality’ where we don’t displace all the residents of these neighborhoods.”

Contact Witt Wells at (901) 319-8877 or at witt.wells@buzzon.biz

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