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Leaders talk area investments

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The Central Savannah River Area has experienced tremendous growth in recent years, and the region’s largest employer has kept apace.

Fort Gordon added 9,000 people over the past eight years, a staggering number that Tom Clark, executive director at the Alliance for Fort Gordon, said would have been cause for a front page spread in multiple publications if the military installation were a private employer.

Clark was one of four panelists who talked about the “state of the community” at the North Augusta Chamber of Commerce’s quarterly luncheon May 3. He was joined by Aiken Regional Medical Centers CEO Jim O’Loughlin, Aiken County Public School District Superintendent King Laurence and North Augusta City Administrator Jim Clifford.

“It is truly an economic engine for our region,” said Clark of the base in Augusta that has benefitted from the Army’s consolidation and relocation of the nation’s entire cyber command there two years ago.

In the past few years, the base has seen its annual economic impact grow from $2.4 billion to $2.7 billion.

More than 80 construction projects at the base that will support the new cyber command are receiving almost $2 billion between now and 2028. The Cyber Center Schoolhouse expansion will account for about $900 million of that.

More jobs, more people, more demand: multiple factors have symbiotically fed into the population and economic growth in the CSRA, in Aiken County and, most locally, in North Augusta.

And it’s not a western shift from the eastern end of Aiken County, but a growth throughout the county that has simply been most pronounced at the Georgia-Carolina border, said North Augusta’s Clifford.

“We live in a pretty robust economic area, and we’re the benefit of a lot of smart decisions by industry and by folks here ,” he said.

Investments in healthcare, education

One of the industries that has grown in this region is healthcare, and this in spite of the difficulties that South Carolina’s status as a certificate of need state provides to expansion of health systems.

Aiken Regional Medical Centers opened a new multi-practice facility on Georgia Avenue on Monday,  and its freestanding ER at Sweetwater, off Exit 5, is opening at the end of June.

The health system this summer is launching the first of two residency programs; three years from now, when both the family practice and internal medicine residency programs have matured, the system will have 42 residents throughout ARMC.

O’Loughlin, CEO of Aiken Regional, said that ARMC is also expanding its capabilities through investing in new treatments and particularly those that will augment its status as a leading cardiology and stroke center.

“One of the things we look at in the area of cardiology, as well as others, is why are people leaving the community and what services do we provide to the community that people have to leave for,” said O’Loughlin.

Expansion in the area of electrophysiology has become a priority, he said, noting that right now Aiken Regional has to transfer patients out to either Augusta or Lexington for this type of treatment.

“We have constructed an electrophysiology lab, and we are in discussion with the medical University of South Carolina about bringing electrophysiologists up to Aiken several days per week so we can provide those services here in the community,” said O’Laughlin.

Aiken County public schools, too, have had to read the tea leaves and project years in advance where new schools would have to go up, what investments should be made with other area partners and how to pay for it all.

Aiken County Public School District superintendent King Laurence talked about investments made in the district as result, in part, of nearly $141 million in funding that has come in from a 2014 referendum.

Eight years ago, voters approved a penny sales tax that to date has brought $140.78 million into the district for such projects as the new Aiken and North Augusta high schools and the new career and technology center. That center is also expected to get a $30 million boost from the plutonium settlement should it make it through the final stages budgeting in the statehouse and get Gov. Henry McMaster’s signature.

The center would provide “additional pathways from K-12 education into the technical college system and then into USC Aiken and other universities,” said Laurence, Aiken County’s superintendent of schools.

The new Highland Springs Middle School is expected to open its doors to some 700 students for the 2023-2024 academic year. An elementary school is also in the works for that area along Palmetto Parkway. Both schools’ designs have changed from the first plans due to a forecast of having to accommodate even more students.

The population of North Augusta alone has grown by 14% in the past decade to just under 25,000 people. Names like “Highland Springs,” “Austin Heights” and the “Mealing tract” have entered the common parlance of residential development in the city, which last year saw its largest development boom since Riverside Village went in five years ago.

Where Fort Gordon is concerned, that influx of people on the base is good news for CSRA Realtors, said the Alliance’s Clark.

Fort Gordon has constructed more homes both for general officers and for junior enlisted personnel, but the base is still “90% full” and most of those who work at the base live off of it in the surrounding area, said Clark.

In North Augusta specifically, Exit 5 may have been the hot spot for new projects in recent years, but City Administrator Clifford said that might shift to Exit 1 as already established neighborhoods see more development and tracts between North Augusta High School and West Martintown receive interest, too.

Commercial development is also picking up.

Projects on North Augusta’s “Motor Mile” are now coming off the blocks: the Hyundai dealership is expected to open before fall with the new KIA opening in spring.

The new Hyundai off Jefferson Davis Highway is expected to be open later this year with KIA to follow next spring. The “Motor Mile” of North Augusta, along with Exit 5, has been a big driver of commercial development in the city.

North Augusta Forward also had announced earlier this year the sale of the old Carpet Shop — previously the roller skate rink — to local developer and current North Augusta Chair Brett Brannon for a rehab into a larger office and retail space that would take in the adjacent property as well.

The city of North Augusta is also pushing to attract business that will complement what Augusta has at Fort Gordon.

“We’re trying to advocate for cyber and cyber businesses to be here in North Augusta. Georgia really got out of the gate quickly with the Georgia Cyber Center,” said North Augusta’s Clifford. “I think there’s still opportunities out there to be had, and if those opportunities are there, I want them to be here and not in Columbia County or Richmond County, I want them to be here in the city of North Augusta.”

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