By Ashlee Duren | Photos by Amy J. Owen
Odie Donald II knows a thing or two about starting at the bottom and climbing the proverbial corporate, or in his case, government ladder.
The journey to Augusta and his job as city administrator did not begin intentionally. In fact, Donald took his first government job out of necessity.
At a towering six-foot-seven inches, Donald played basketball for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and abroad before a knee injury changed the course of his life. Faced with choosing a new career path, Donald was approached by an employee of Fulton County to come aboard and assist in identifying problems with services offered by the county to its citizens.
“I tell people there is probably not a job in the government atmosphere that I have not had,” Donald chuckled.
But it’s Donald’s humbleness and understanding of each position that continue to make him an effective leader. In the past year as city administrator, he has spent countless hours listening to citizens and making sure they have a role in the government they fund.
“We want to make sure that while all the decisions we make may not be uniformly accepted by the public, they at least understand what went into the decision, why we made those decisions and what role they play,” Donald said. “A transparent government is a good government.”
The next step is to have a solid, unified five-year strategic plan. In Donald’s observation, Augusta has faced challenges in this area due to continual leadership changes. “Every two years you have a change of leadership whether it’s your elected officials, administrators, department heads, etc.; [the city] is in a continuous cycle of change so having a clearly defined strategic plan is vital,” Donald explained.
Since taking the helm in November 2020, Donald has faced some unprecedented challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He, along with government officials across the nation, were forced to navigate unchartered waters as how to best protect their citizens.
Due to the brilliant staff at Augusta University Medical Center, Augusta has been one of the leaders at the forefront of juggling the epidemic and mitigating the spread of the virus.
With the health and safety of human life at the forefront, city officials quickly realized they also had a responsibility to the business community and turned to educating them on the opportunities to provide safe and sound business practices. “We have put out about $1.5 million so that our small businesses are able to survive in this uncertain climate,” Donald said. He also said the city allocated about $7 million to assist landlords and others in the housing industry enabling them to maintain their businesses. “I have been excited to see our elected officials really step up and make some unpopular decisions,” he further explained.
Donald is also proud of the strides the city has made in raising the vaccination rate. When the city launched their “VaxUp Augusta” campaign only 29 percent of its citizens had been vaccinated. During our interview in early October that number had climbed to roughly 40 percent and Donald was projecting that within a year the number would reach the 65 to 70 percent range.
Other key issues facing the city are the growth of downtown and the homeless. According to Donald, 51 new businesses moved into the downtown area during the worst health emergency in the last century – a pretty impressive marker. At the time of our interview, he was hoping for an approval of funding for the new James Brown Arena to continue to spur growth and commerce in the area. In November, the vote failed to receive the necessary support for public funding. Still, there is hope for the trend to continue with the opening of luxury apartments in the 600 block of 11th Street.
Just last month, Augusta was named among the top Digital City Governments by The Center for Digital Government (CDG). The recognition spotlights cities utilizing technology to tackle social challenges, improve services, encourage citizen engagement, strengthen cybersecurity and enhance transparency.
“Telling our story has to be a priority,” Donald explained. “We need to infuse funding, attention and support to keep the momentum going.”
With economic growth, though, comes a population increase and an increase in the area’s homeless. In an effort to address the issue, the Augusta-Richmond County Commission has put in place the homeless task force. Donald cautions that while the task force cannot fully mitigate homelessness in our community, it can make an impact. The main goal of the task force is to make homelessness in the Augusta area “rare, brief and non-recurrent.”
The city has taken some of the emergency relief funding to create an opportunity for a non-congregate shelter to facilitate skills, job training and mental health support. Donald said he has been impressed with how Augusta residents keep up awareness in the area. In fact, he noted that many of the homeless services are funded privately.
“Our citizens have stepped up to the plate,” he said. “And now the government has recognized we need to do our part.”
As the city administrator of one of the state’s largest cities, Donald faces an ongoing litany of challenges every day. While the current issues he will have to tackle are certain to remain and others will most certainly arise, there is no question that Donald is the man for the job.
Appears in the January 2022 issue of Augusta Magazine.