Column: State of the City address offers downtown do-over

Jan. 28—A mulligan, in golf parlance, is a chance to hit a better shot.

You can call it a do-over or a second chance. It's also a food term, often to describe a stew made up of odds and ends.

The City of Aiken is taking a mulligan on Project Pascalis, its swing and miss on redeveloping Hotel Aiken and key areas of downtown. At his State of the City address Jan. 23, Mayor Rick Osbon unveiled plans that Savannah River National Laboratory will build its workforce development center downtown. Several buildings that were going to be torn down will remain intact. The city and Aiken County are in discussions about turning the former Municipal Building into space for the solicitor's office.

Those plans received applause, but Osbon wasn't done. He announced the city is going to open up a request for proposals on Hotel Aiken. Applause filled the room again.

On the surface, all of it sounds reasonable. There were warning bells when Project Pascalis was announced in late 2021 — converting Newberry Street into a one-way street and turning the Municipal Building into a conference center among them — but the city forged ahead.

Then the lawsuits hit. Several members of the Aiken Municipal Development Commission resigned. The project was cancelled. And the Hotel Aiken continues to sit empty.

Osbon called for civility, a not so thinly veiled remark that reflected the often tense — and sometimes acrimonious — discussions and meetings about Project Pascalis.

"I believe that one of the biggest challenges facing Aiken — and all of our cities and towns — is governing in a time when disagreements turn ugly and compromise is a four-letter word," Osbon said.

He pledged that the city would invite more public discussions and engage those with the strongest opinions "early and often." A public forum on the lab's proposed workforce center is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Feb. 6 at the Center for African American Heritage, Arts and Culture.

"What do you say?" Osbon asked the audience. "Who's for more kindness and understanding in 2023?"

Dr. Vahid Majidi, director of Savannah River National Laboratory, provided more details about the project and how it would help with the goal of developing a new pipeline of talent with the lab's university collaborative.

Osbon noted that he is staying out of the negotiations involving the lab and the downtown parcels. Warneke Cleaners, which would move from Newberry Street to Richland Avenue, is a "friendly competitor" to Osbon's family business. Mayor Pro Tempore Ed Woltz is taking the lead for the city on that project.

Osbon also pledged transparency on all things Hotel Aiken.

"Keep in mind, the plan is for the private sector to pay for creating a profitable business at that site," Osbon said. "In my opinion, no proposal that asks the city to foot the bill for the actual renovations or construction should be seriously considered."

In a follow-up article to the State of the City, reaction was mostly positive. Former City Council member Dick Dewar questioned if the workforce development center was going in the right downtown spot.

My take is it won't necessarily encourage tourism for the downtown area, but it would bring a lot of highly educated, well-paid people to work there. Presumably, they would also eat and shop.

Where will they park? Woltz said that a "surface" parking lot could be added on Newberry Street across from St. John's United Methodist Church, and that a "structured" lot could be added next to the new Municipal Building on Chesterfield Street. That would add 250-300 parking spots.

In my weekend golf game, filled with players of differing abilities, we often use a "must mulligan." You can hit a second ball off the first tee, when you might not be as loose and ready, but you must use it even if it's worse than your first shot.

That's what this latest version of downtown Aiken's redevelopment feels like. A must, for everyone involved, to get it right this time.

Thanks for reading.