Residents 'cautiously optimistic' about riverfront project

Popular conversation starters for North Augusta City Council members these days include traffic, noise, lights, parking and funding, mainly with regard to Project Jackson, the riverside development project that was introduced in mid-December.

Project boosters have maintained that the potential cost to the public, in the neighborhood of $43 million, would not result in North Augusta residents having to pay new (or increased) taxes. Some revenue would be by way of tax-increment financing, and questions of dollar amounts loom large in the discussion.

One question was to have been settled this week in a Tuesday Council meeting. A resolution was submitted asking for approval of "certain proposed amendments" to North Augusta's riverfront TIF district.

Project Jackson would include a $150 million mixed-use development, with a 225-room, $60 million hotel resort; a 20,000-square-foot conference center, structured parking for 900 and a $28-million City-owned sports and entertainment facility, sometimes described simply as "the baseball field" and possible future home of the Augusta GreenJackets.

Also proposed have been restaurants, 225 luxury apartments, 75 town homes, a retail area of about 30,000 square feet and 40,000 square feet of office space.

Councilman Ken McDowell, via email, noted, "I like the hotel concept and hope that it will be able to go forward. But, parking and traffic must be addressed. The stadium is a stretch. At this time, I am trying to keep an open mind and hear all of the details of the project before making a decision."

"It's got to make sense from a financial standpoint," noted Fletcher Dickert, a candidate for Council.

"There's just not enough information on it," said David McGhee, who is also running for a Council seat.

"I live in Hammond's Ferry. Therefore, I also knew there was going to be a 'town center' and whatever the town center was made up of was always based on the economics, based on who wants to invest in whatever office facility or hotel. I'm just excited to hear that the City has an opportunity and there's interest to move the town center forward," McGhee said.

McGhee, like Dickert and various Council incumbents, confirmed that he has heard "a lot of different feedback" on the topic.

"There's some very strong concerns that I share with people," he said, noting that his role as an investor is simply in home ownership.

On that basis, he added, "I'm excited to see more growth in the development itself, for the pure economics of the development."

Mayor Lark Jones, who is running for re-election and has no apparent opposition, confirmed a major question as being, "Can we line up the financing?"

The Council, he noted, voted to move the project forward. "That's not to say that it would be approved as-is. That will ultimately go before the Planning Commission, with hearings, and the City Council, with hearings, but that is way down the line."

Financing is primary, and the plan is to consider the largest plan first, the mayor said. If a smaller plan winds up winning approval instead, then the financing information will still be valid, the mayor said.

Jones, speaking Saturday, addressed Tuesday's upcoming vote on a proposed TIF alteration.

The proposal, he said, "just puts the financial things in place so that if a project is approved, we'll have the financial ability to issue bonds and pay for the City's part of whatever the ultimate project is."

"Cautiously optimistic" is the phrase former Councilman Jason Whinghter chose in describing the mood of people who have approached him to talk about the topic.

"I'm hearing a lot of concern over traffic and noise and lights and parking," said Councilman Carolyn Baggott. "Some people see it as a good step for North Augusta, while others are very concerned."

Councilman Pat Carpenter, who is seeking re-election, noted that "a lot of people think this would be an asset to North Augusta."

"I think right now everybody is excited about it, but yet, there's so many things to be solved before that will come to pass," Carpenter said.

In terms of support versus opposition for Project Jackson, she said, "I've had more positive than negative."

Most of the opposition coming to her attention, she said, has come from riverside residents.

Councilman Arthur Shealy, the other incumbent seeking reelection, noted, "I have gotten a range of comments, from, 'It will destroy North Augusta,' to 'We like, we love it, we want some more of it.'"

Shealy said "a solid majority" of the input he has received has supported Project Jackson.

Most of the opposition, he said, is from residents of Hammond's Ferry or The River Club, or from those residents' friends. "There is some opposition from people all over town, but most - a strong majority - do support it."

Dickert, when asked about the next steps in the development process, echoed the mayor in confirming the present point as "very, very early."

"I would presume that right now the developer's hot and heavy, trying to get all of the players together because he's looking ... for various developers and investors and bankers and so forth to come up with this end of the deal," he said.

"Once he gets all of his players together, then that group will be able to negotiate what the City is and isn't going to be responsible for."