A statue of James Brown presides over the Augusta Common, a manicured downtown green space that has hosted everything from food trucks to ice rinks.
But to the statue’s back is a hulking building with a shattered plate glass window.
That’s today’s Augusta: halfway between thriving and desolate.
The desolation dates back to the 1960s. But the thriving energy continues today, with an explosion of construction and new businesses driven by the Georgia Cyber Center.
The public-private partnership, which opened two years ago, aims to make the city an international hub for cyber security. The question now is how much growth is still to come – and who it’s going to serve.
Among the center’s tenants are three higher-education institutions, two international defense contractors and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Cyber Crime Center.
The U.S. military is expected to invest $2.1 billion at nearby Fort Gordon, home to the Army Cyber Command.
Eric Toler, executive director of the Georgia Cyber Center, says the Greater Augusta area expects to see 10,000 new cyber related jobs.
It wasn’t always this way. Coco Rubio knows that first hand.
Up a block from the James Brown statue is The Soul Bar, where the downtown’s revival started. Rubio opened the bar in 1995, the same year the City of Augusta went broke.
“To me, it was neat to use music to get people to come out,” Rubio says. “Because they were like, ‘Why are people going to go downtown? There’s nothing to do down there.’”
Augusta’s decline had begun in the 1960s, when more than 20% of the city’s white population fled to the suburbs. In 1970, a race riot destroyed the city’s black business district, and the city’s population plummeted. The Soul Bar had opened in a ghost town.
“The rent was so cheap, $250 a month with an option to buy the building,” says Rubio.
Today that would rent you a bathroom in one of the few remaining downtown apartments.
City leadership and private developers are building more housing, says Augusta-Richmond County Commissioner Sean Frantom. Medical students are moving into poor, historically black neighborhoods to be close to their campus, and Fort Gordon’s soldiers and their families need more housing, too.
“Nobody wants to hear the word gentrification happen in their neighborhood,” says Frantom. “But some of these developers are buying up multiple properties, tearing down dilapidated houses and creating kind of an economic boom.”
And the Georgia Cyber Center is in the thick of it, right downtown.
One of its biggest challenges though: more than half of Augusta-Richmond County’s adults hold only high school diplomas.
“There are very few people who can graduate from high school and go to work right away,” says Toler. “The norm would be to go into a technical college route.”
So the cyber center is partnering with local school systems and colleges on a cyber curriculum. But for now, the people filling these and other jobs will be transplants like Shawn Edwards.
Edwards is the executive director of the Augusta Land Bank Authority, which helps the city revitalize blighted properties. He says one of two groups is going to determine the city’s future.
“It’s going to be people like me who moved here intentionally, voluntarily or it’s going to be people who were born here and raised here and still live here,” says Edwards. “And the people like me got a head start.”
Edwards says the city does seem to be listening to all its residents. So there’s hope that the Augustans who lived through the hard times will benefit from the cyber boom, too.