Aiken Award Recipient Anne Campell
Aiken Award Recipient Rick Steele
Aiken Award Recipient Lucinda Kenner
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m privileged and honored to say I’m the Mayor of the Best Small Town in the South. And not just because Southern Living magazine said so. The magazine may have selected us for the honor this past year, but, as far I’m concerned, it’s always been the case. The readers who voted in that annual online poll simply realized what we’ve always been certain of. Now that the whole world knows what had been “our little secret,” I intend to make sure everyone remembers that we were the Best Small Town last year, we remain the best small town today … and we have no intention of giving up that title in the years to come.
As we work to maintain that very special designation, your City Council and I realize there is work to be done. Each of us has committed to one simple principle – we intend to leave this great City even better than when we found it – no matter what it takes. Tonight, I’d like to share important milestones and achievements that have been accomplished over the last year and talk about some lofty goals for the next several years. One that I’m most proud of is what we’ve been able to do in support of the men and women who put their lives on the line each and every day on our behalf.
Through the leadership of this City Council and our dedicated City staff, we have addressed longstanding issues that have really made Public Safety’s mission harder than it is by its nature and harder than it ever should have been. For years, Public Safety was chronically understaffed and faced unprecedented turnover because officers could go virtually anywhere and find a higher paying position with more certain prospects for career advancement. That constant drain on the department left Public Safety short-staffed – typically by a near-crippling 10 to 12 positions at any given time. Despite those problems, day-to-day police work and patrols went on without interruption thanks to the leadership and hard work of Chief Charles Barranco and his command staff. To make that happen required lots of overtime and lots of juggling responsibilities to ensure that core law enforcement and firefighting duties never suffered. That’s a lot of wear and tear on some good people and they desperately needed some relief and support. One example of the impact was the virtual suspension for several years of the Community Services Division, a group that was assigned to building relationships and proactively preventing crime in neighborhoods that needed the extra TLC these officers could provide. During the staffing shortages, these key responsibilities had to take a back seat as the officers involved helped fill out the demanding 24/7 Citywide patrol schedule.
I’m proud to say that, today, those problems are a thing of the past. Over the last year, City Council worked to implement a compensation system that both ensures our officers are paid a fair AND COMPETITIVE salary. To put it very simply, the results of this compensation plan have been dramatic. Today, Public Safety is essentially fully staffed and the turnover has slowed – the torrent of employees hired and trained here that then leave for a better job at another agency has slowed to a trickle.
Needless to say, the protection of lives and property is the first and foremost responsibility of local government. Through the actions we’ve taken, the City and the people of Aiken are showing our officers that we appreciate them and take that mission … their mission … seriously. Nothing demonstrates that more than our innovative new 40,000-square-foot Public Safety headquarters set to open next month. You would never know that the beautiful and cutting-edge facility we’re about to cut the ribbon on was once an abandoned Food Lion grocery store, would you? By using the existing shell of a building that had been dormant for several years, City taxpayers are getting among the finest law enforcement facilities in the region for a fraction of the cost projected for an expansion of the cramped old facility on Laurens Street or the construction of a new one from the ground up. We think the savings, estimated to be as much as $10 million, and the adaptive reuse of the Food Lion, is so truly innovative and just plain smart. I’m proud to tell you that the project has been nominated for a Municipal Award from the South Carolina Municipal Association and we expect to win it. Many of the fine officers and staff that will soon fill that building are here with us tonight. Ladies and gentlemen, stand up for us and let us show you how much we respect and appreciate the difficult and important work you do to keep us all safe!
Oh, and I would like to announce tonight, we are back in the all-important community policing business for the first time in far too long. Two of the officers who are with us tonight, Marquis Davis and Stephanie Barbe(y) are helping in building our Community Services Division back to what it once was. Currently they’re working in Crosland Park, as assigned community officers, where they are getting to know the residents, building relationships, and working with the community to improve that neighborhood each and every day. Thank You, Marquis and Stephanie and thank you Crosland Park Neighborhood Assoc. because as I have heard Chief say many times: Community Policing does not work without the trust of a partnership between the Neighbors and Public Safety.
Another thing we’re so pleased about is the re-creation of Aiken’s mounted patrol division. There’s no question that a horse town like ours needs and deserves a mounted patrol and the fine group of volunteers who make up the reconstituted unit were out front greeting all of you when you came in. We want to recognize them tonight. Stand up guys … I feel bad that we couldn’t figure out how to get those beautiful horses that make up the other half of your team in here tonight … but let’s give them a round of applause anyway.
The effort to recruit and retain the best possible workforce to serve the citizens of Aiken may have started with Public Safety, but it didn’t stop there. We’ve recently expanded the compensation plan to include all of our employees. The resulting step and grade plan ensures that workers with similar duties, regardless of department, are paid a similar and fair wage. The plan also encourages good employees to stay with us for the long haul. We’ve also taken some important steps to evaluate the workload of various departments and find innovative ways to address areas where we found we had stretched our people far too thinly.
I recently traveled to Columbia to accept an award we are very proud of for one of those programs that not only served to lighten the load on our public services, but also extend a hand to a group of our residents who need and deserve an opportunity to serve. When the state department of corrections closed the Lower Savannah Pre-Release Center several years ago, the City lost access to as many as a dozen prison workers who helped with any number of tasks that kept our City clean and inviting. After the loss of those workers, who were paid just dollars a day, the City’s full-time staff absorbed the work, or as much of it as they could keep up with at least. As Downtown Aiken and the Alley area became more and more of a destination, the need for more help became more apparent. There simply weren’t enough bodies to cut all the grass, maintain our beautiful landscaping, maintain miles and miles of Parkways and properly take care of a popular, loved and well used Downtown district. Let me tell you, everybody enjoys hanging out Downtown and enjoying a little shopping, some great dining, the bands from Amp the Alley and other festivals … but all that enjoyment leaves a lot of trash in its wake.
The solution proved to be a pretty simple one. We reached out to Ralph Courtney, the executive director of Aiken Board of Disabilities and the Tri-Development Center and asked if his organization might be able to help. If you don’t know about them, Tri-Development serves adults with disabilities and special needs by giving them workforce training and job placement opportunities. Last spring, we contracted with the group and now they send a crew of wonderful, hard-working individuals downtown to make sure our City, especially the area around the Alley and the Newberry Festival Center, are as spic and span as they should be. In turn, this allows our full-time workers to concentrate on other areas that need attention. It’s truly a win-win for all concerned. As I said, I was honored earlier this month to accept the Silver Palmetto Award from the South Carolina Department of Disabilities and Special Needs. During the ceremony, which was attended by Ralph and some of our terrific Tri-Development workers, the presenter said the City is showing leadership by example and that we are a model for advocating for, and including people with disabilities as active participants in our community. Ralph and Some of these workers are here with us tonight … Please stand up … Let’s give them a round of applause.
As I said, evaluating workloads has allowed our City staff to concentrate in other areas that are priorities for us. That certainly includes our Parkways and the urban forest that contributes so much to the quality of life here. Work continues to better maintain and clear overgrowth from our 178 Parkways, which has made such an amazing difference and opened them back up for people to enjoy. On that subject, at long last, we have received approval from DHEC for a plan to reverse many of the bio-swale areas along the stretch of Parkways from Laurens Street to Union. These plans are tied to key elements that will greatly reduce the storm water that flows from Downtown into Hitchcock Woods, plans that have been decades in the making and that are long overdue. With those needs in mind, work will soon begin to extend the walking path and lighting that has been so well received in Teague Park across from the Municipal Center. Following last year’s public tree inventory, and the creation of an urban forest management plan, we’ve hired a full-time arborist who is hard at work protecting the trees that we treasure. Our goal is to plant at least two new trees to replace each that falls, or must be removed, due to damage or disease. All of that work, the inventory and management plan, has been largely funded through very generous financial support from the Aiken Land Conservancy. This year, that group and its patron, Rob Johnston, have stepped up once again to fund a nourishment project that will ensure the health of the iconic grand oak canopy along South Boundary Avenue that our City is so well known for. The trees will be well fed and happy for later this year when we begin the long-needed process of undergrounding the utilities along South Boundary. Dominion Energy will match City funds and together $1 million will be available to relocate those utilities, protecting the trees from the extensive trimming required now because of the overhead lines.
We also have some very good things happening with our Parks Recreation and Tourism department. The Senior-Youth Center at Eustis Park is nearing completion and will soon become a community focal point where older adults and young people come together for programs and activities that encourage their involvement in and with the center and the community. The 12,000-square-foot facility will house a banquet hall with 296 seats, sub-dividable into 3 separate rooms; a catering kitchen; a patio; and a 100 and 50-person meeting room. The property is 5.53 acres and is an extension of the adjacent Eustis Park, adding additional green space for outdoor recreation. One of the best things about it, much like the Public Safety project, the Center is being finished on time and on budget. In the coming months, the Smith-Hazel Recreation Center will undergo its first major renovation in more than 30 years. The pool there, that has been so critical in teaching so many of our City’s children to swim over the decades, will be entirely replaced along with the restrooms and other facilities there.
In July we celebrated the grand opening of Generations Park on Columbia Highway. We have great plans for the property as we work to grow the City towards the Airport and Interstate 20. Those plans certainly include future additions to the athletic and recreation offering, but we also understand that nothing drives development like rooftops, so we’re also exploring the possibility of residential and commercial development on portions of the large property there.
Tonight, we celebrate these and many more important accomplishments in our shared community. Despite that, we know our work is far from done. We have made great leaps over the last 18 months to address the aging infrastructure of our City. Underground water and sewer lines that have been in place around our downtown for as long as a century have been rehabilitated and replaced. To be sure, the process has been trying and disruptive at times. Anyone who has tried to live in and old home and renovate it at the same time knows that you always find things you didn’t expect, it always takes longer than expected and it often costs more than estimated. In our case, we’ve dealt with unexpected problems and more than a few delays …. Very soon we hope to say goodbye to the orange cones and big holes that have filled Downtown for what seems to be far too long. We want to say a special thank you to the small businesses that have been affected by this work. We know it has not been easy and it has added an extra strain on conducting commerce. Despite the temporary downsides, we know that this work has prepared our critical systems in the City to meet the needs of our growing business community and eliminate many expensive emergency repairs for decades to come.
We’ve talked about a lot of accomplishments tonight, but let’s talk a little bit about the things we haven’t gotten done yet. It’s human nature to pay more attention to nagging problems than issues that have been solved. Believe me, I get it. My fellow City Council members get it. Major projects like the redevelopment of the Aiken Mall and the $11 million renewal of the historic Hotel Aiken are things that people ask me about almost daily. In both cases, I can tell you that the owners of the properties involved are even more anxious to get things moving than we are. I can assure you that Southeastern Development is working every day to secure the commitments and tenants at the Mall they need in place before they can fully plan the project. Clearly, without those plans in place, they can’t move forward with demolition or new construction. While those negotiations are all sensitive and confidential discussions, I promise you, City officials are working and meeting with prospective businesses interested in Aiken and the Mall. I can’t share more, but I can tell you the next steps are close. I believe we as a community have our ear to the track, and we can hear the roar of the train coming!
With the Hotel Aiken, the demolition work there is down to the bare studs. The hotel owners’ have submitted initial plans and drawings to the City and to the Marriott Corporation for comments. As soon as final approvals are in place, construction can begin and should be completed within 18 months. Good things take time, ladies and gentlemen, and I have faith that both of these high-profile projects are going to be very good for our community.
On the old Aiken hospital site, when the Marian Group of Kentucky recently withdrew its proposal to develop a controversial number and type of housing units on the site, the Aiken Standard carried the editorial shown on the screen. “The City of Aiken’s Progress Has Become Stagnant,” the headline reads. I can understand the thought and I certainly won’t argue the point … I’m far too busy working to make sure that nothing is further from the truth. In fact, we had already begun working to find qualified developers who could save the sale of the hospital site, the largest single parcel in the City available for redevelopment, one that stands at a key gateway to our Downtown. I’m pleased to say that through working together and good communication with our friends at the County, we were successful, and we were quick to find a full-price buyer with what I believe is an even better vision for the property. In no small part the work city staff did last year to have the site included in the new federal Opportunity Zone was the deciding factor that convinced a local and well respected developer to make an offer and move forward with plans to build a hotel and convention center on the site. This might be called a lot of things, but the word stagnant doesn’t quite seem to fit in my mind. No, and we’re not done. We’ll never be done. But, we are aggressively working every day to find solutions and, as I said when we began tonight, leave this wonderful community better than any of us found it. Using the opportunity zones and other incentives, we’re putting more resources into economic and community development than ever before – and we’re seeing tremendous interest in our community. Over the last year, your City has grown and we have the numbers to show it.
The City of Aiken led all areas and municipalities in Aiken County by a very wide margin with more than $2 billion in gross revenue reported by license holders to the City. No one else in our region even comes close to that number, which is seeing healthy growth year over year. Those figures were reported on 4,615 business licenses, which is up from the year prior by more than 100 new business licenses. In 2018, new residential permits in the City added up to $21.7 million in new home construction and $20.3 million in new commercial projects. That doesn’t sound stagnant to me and I’m sure not to the 4,615 licensees who enjoy doing business in the City of Aiken.
In fact, how can prospective residents and businesses not take note of all the exciting things that make Aiken THE PLACE to be? We have such a vibrant and active community … just consider this coming weekend alone. Our equestrian community will host the LiftMaster Eventing Grand Prix at Bruce’s field. This major event will bring 11 Olympians from six nations to Aiken to compete. They’ll come from Australia, Switzerland, Brazil, Canada, Great Britain and all over the USA. Grand-Prix Eventing is a spectator friendly two-day competition, featuring a morning of Dressage, an evening of Stadium Jumping, and an afternoon of running Cross Country. This equestrian triathlon presents a prime opportunity for top eventing riders to kick start their competition season, and to welcome the public to an exciting fast-paced equestrian event. All of that, ladies and gentlemen, right here in Aiken, South Carolina. What a great kickoff to our Spring equestrian events and the Triple Crown.
We all have an important role in the future of our City, in the future of the best small town anywhere! In summing up tonight, I’d like to thank all of you, the people of Aiken for doing your part over the last year. In May of last year, you joined voters all over Aiken County and helped pass a penny sales tax that will raise $90 million dollars for school upgrades and construction. While none of those dollars go to the City of Aiken, the school district and education play a critical role in the health of this community. The new Aiken High School has been a wonderful addition along with other improvements to the campuses that make us attractive to newcomers. In government, there are two basic ways to raise the revenues needed to provide all the services our residents desire – you can raise taxes, or you can grow the number of taxpayers. For 30 years, City Council has not raised taxes. Instead the City has grown, except for the days following the great recession. We’ve put that crisis behind us and we’re working to make sure our community is one that will draw a fair share of the high-tech and high income workers who will soon move to the area. It is projected that when the contracts are let in 2020 there will be 8,000 to 10,000 jobs created to support Cyber operations at Fort Gordon. and with the new plutonium pit and other missions coming to SRS we have already seen a rise in employment. Savannah River Remediation hired 375 positions last year and is on track to do the same in 2019. SRNS has 478 new hires since October 1, 2018 and have approximately 200 offers pending and more than 650 positions in progress following posting. They are looking to hire up to 1,300 new employees this year to replace attrition and to support increased work scope. One of the first question we receive when speaking with potential new residents is about our Schools. Beyond just new school buildings, our local educators are making great strides that will help the City and the County bring new taxpayers to our community. For example, it was recently announced that the average SAT score in the district last year, was 1067 – that is above the state average and on par with the national average. That’s something for all of us to be proud of, something I am readily available and happy to share with potential SRS and Cyber employees. Just a few months after the important school funding vote, you went to the polls and passed the fourth round of Aiken County’s Capital Project Sales Tax by the largest margin ever. The largest ever. This investment you’ve made in our community will allow us to continue key infrastructure work and other critical priorities like moving forward with the planned Powderhouse Connector that will relieve Whiskey Road congestion by as much as 23 percent. Please allow us to say thank you for your support of CPST 4.
The year ahead promises to be an exciting one. It promises to be a year when many of the plans and projects we’ve been waiting for take flight. I can’t wait to watch it all come together with you. In the meantime, God bless the best small town on the planet. Good night.