In the sporting world, the Masters golf tournament has come to represent a tradition of excellence that few other events can match. Residing at Augusta National Golf Club, nestled in the picturesque scenery of northern Georgia, the tournament has built a reputation of competitiveness, but one with dignity and class. (While the ongoing debate on club membership focuses a different lens on the club but from a golfing point of view, it holds the US equivalent stature of St. Andrews and vice versa.) So when I learned I’d be traveling to Augusta, Georgia last spring for a service trip, I half expected to see manicured lawns and plantation homes lining the streets. The reality of Augusta is a little different.
Last year Augusta was ranked as having the 9th highest suburban poverty rate in the country by the Brookings Institution with 16.9%. For Augusta-Richmond County itself, this value is 23.7%, exactly 8% higher than the national average. This fact particularly struck me when we went downtown one evening. As the 2nd largest metro area in Georgia, with approximately 556,877 residents, we were surprised to find the quaint buildings all but vacant. The only store we actually found open was a small but delicious cake shop (who’s food is called “as familiar as an old Gospel hymn” by Southern living) down one of the side streets.
Augusta National, a private club, opens its gates but once a year to the public. Even then, many residents of Augusta can only get tickets to the practice rounds. The cameras never stray from the course and perhaps there’s no reason to. During the single week in April the money rolls in by the millions. In fact, locals rent out properties for Masters week, often at a huge profit. The Chamber of Commerce’s Masters Housing Bureau even helps negotiate prices for a 7% commission, all of which is invested back in the city. Combined with restaurant sales, shopping, and hotel accommodations, the city always has a reliable source of revenue.
Perhaps that’s the key then. Perhaps reliability is the way to brand Augusta. The unemployment rate is about 9%. Not bad. The highly trained workforce from nearby Fort Gordon (military base), Augusta State University, Augusta Technical College, and Paine College were cited as reasons why Starbucks is opening a new manufacturing plant there. Fort Gordon and the Medical College of Georgia (and its hospital) are major, stable employers in the area. Fort Gordon has the largest communications training center in the nation, employs about 27,000 military and civilian workers, and is estimated to have a $1.4 billion economic impact on Augusta. The Medical College of Georgia employees about 7,800 employees and generates about $2 billion for the Augusta area.
With a “tradition unlike any other” the Masters is the only PGA major that returns to the same place every year. Perhaps it’s because of the beautiful course and the wonderful climate. Perhaps it’s also because the PGA realizes something that other businesses haven’t. In economic hard times the military and health systems are very stable industries. There are always wars to be fought and sick people to take care of. Pair this with strong training institutions that provide lots of skilled labor and you have quite a recipe for success. It’s no wonder, then, why Augusta fluctuates between the Brookings 20 best and 20 worst performing cities each year. It does relatively better in poor times, but doesn’t grow as much in good times. It’s a reliable, stable economy that somehow slips under the radar.
As the Masters rolls through town again this week, it’s easy to get lost in the leaderboard and forget about the problems of Augusta. But it’s a different “tradition unlike any other” that holds promise for the future. The unique economy truly makes Augusta a green jacket city, and it seems about time the business world noticed.
Guest Contributor: Rick Passerelli