Is North Augusta 'Project Jackson' riverfront truly blighted?

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News 12 at 11 o'clock / Monday, Oct. 28, 2013

NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. (WRDW) -- It's an argument the City of North Augusta continues to hear.

"We're going through using a statute to eliminate blight, and we're lying to everybody! That's what it comes down to, Mr. Mayor," said River Club HOA President Steve Donohue during a public meeting on October 21.

In order to finance Project Jackson, the $150 million development to bring the GreenJackets, a hotel, and more to North Augusta side of the river, the city will have to use a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district. A TIF district diverts future tax revenue that'll be generated by the growth to pay for the project itself. However, to establish a TIF, by law, 'blight' must be present.

Many, like Donohue, argue that the North Augusta riverfront isn't blighted.

"We are torturing a law using a 22 year old study on blight and saying, 'Oh my God! It's still blighted, and I don't want to look. I don't want to look,'" he said in the meeting.

"Are you taking advantage of a law?" News 12 asks City Administrator Todd Glover.

"Absolutely not," Glover says. "To someone who just walks by, it looks like pristine green-space, but if you walk back into those woods, there's abandoned buildings, there's foundations of former structures, there's brick contamination all in the soil."

We wanted to see for ourselves, so News 12 went behind the wood-line with historian Tony Riley.

"In this area right here, off this Railroad Avenue, you could almost walk from foundation to foundation," says Riley, who believes the plot of land is definitely blighted.

The bricks, are easy to spot. They're literally everywhere. Many of them are deep in the soil. Riley also points out pockets of broken pottery, most dating back to the turn of the 20th century.

"This was the last vestige of pottery-making was right here at this river," he says.

Riley says the North Augusta riverfront, up until the 1950s, was a surprisingly booming place.

"Daddy used to tell me all the time, 500 men would walk the bridge every day and work down here, and it was quite an undertaking at that time," remembers Mark Baynham, Jr.

Baynham is a fourth generation potter in North Augusta. Riley considers Baynham the last of the Edgefield-area potters. Up until the mid-1970s, Baynham made flowerpots near the 13th Street Bridge with a clay mill now displayed underneath the bridge in North Augusta.

"Often said that it made a coal mine look like a picnic," he says. "I'm telling you, it was tough."

Besides pottery, there were two brick kilns, several lumber plants, a veneer plant, a cotton pickery, and several furniture factories.

But nowadays, the industry is gone. Ruins of the once great factories and mills remain, however. All of the ruins, though, are in disastrous conditions.

A brick-making office building has lost its roof. Many of the tile bricks that compose it have flaked off into the structure itself. Just outside the door of the structure is an inflatable mattress. Yards away, an old shed, which once housed brick-making equipment, now holds a collection of smashed televisions. A couch with exposed springs and bags of garbage line the back corner. Further to the east, what was once a drier for the veneer plant is now a homeless camp. Trash, sleeping bags, and debris literally form a carpet inside the drier. Nearby, an old factory bathroom is now a toppled mess of cinder-blocks.

"We've found different types of criminal activity along the Riverfront, because it's so hidden," says Glover.

"People used it as a dump illegally, you know," adds Riley. "But absolutely, it's blighted."

That's exactly why the city will continue pushing forward with Project Jackson.

As for preservation of the historical structures, a 2004 study says the buildings down there aren't worth saving.

"The standing structures on the project site are in dilapidated to ruinous condition," it reads the report titled
Cultural Resources Survey of the North Augusta Riverfront Project. "It is our opinion that neither the property nor any of its elements are eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places."

However, the report does identify a few archaeological sites work saving. Glover says, most importantly, a Native American burial site will be preserved. Glover says it was become green-space called Preservation Park.

However, Glover hopes the council will pass the TIF financing plan for what he sees as a blighted piece of land.

"It would be interesting if someone went in there and left all the structures and all of the foundations but took down the trees, and then if you ask people if they think it's blighted, I think you would get a different answer," Glover says.

Note: Currently, the land is private property, so hikers or anyone else should not venture off the Greeneway, since the terrain in those woods is treacherous and quite dangerous.

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