The state of the City of Aiken is strong, according to Mayor Rick Osbon's Monday night State of the City address. And that strength, the mayor inferred, is sourced from its people, its collective work ethic, and its future prospects.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm here to tell you that the state of our city is strong and getting stronger and more vibrant each and every day," Osbon said from behind the lectern at the AECOM Center for the Performing Arts. "I know everyone here tonight shares my passion for reaching great, new heights through working smart and hard and tirelessly."
The mayor addressed hundreds of people Monday night during the second annual State of the City. Those in attendance included members of the Aiken Department of Public Safety, Aiken City Council and the Aiken County Legislative Delegation.
Osbon's speech first put a magnifying glass to some of the people he believes make Aiken great.
"There is no better way for us to review the state of our city each year than to recognize some of the special people who have contributed and left a mark of distinction on this community," Osbon said.
The first person to be given an Aiken Award on Monday night was Beverly Clyburn, a more than two-decade City Council member and locally famed educator.
"We all know her love for Aiken and the active role she has played in improving this community for all of us," Osbon said.
"My predecessor left some big shoes to fill," City Council member Gail Diggs said of Clyburn.
The second person to receive an Aiken Award was a non-Aiken native: Bill Reynolds. Reynolds recently championed improvements to Hopelands Gardens, Rye Patch and the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame as an active member of the Friends of Hopelands and Rye Patch.
"Bill Reynolds has made real and important contributions to this community," Osbon said.
Parks and Recreation Director Jessica Campbell said working alongside Reynolds has been enjoyable.
The third and final Aiken Award was given to a family, to a legacy. Osbon recognized the family of Marine Cpl. Matthew Dillon, who was killed in 2006 while on patrol in the Anbar province of Iraq. He was 25.
"The award we confer today honors not just Matt, but his entire family..." the mayor said. "The Dillon family has served this city and this nation well.
Transitioning from awards to projects, Osbon first thanked all of the City's employees for the hours they log.
"All of our dedicated city workers truly strive each day to serve this community and the people who call it home," Osbon said.
A contingent of City public works employees were individually recognized by the mayor for their ongoing parkway improvement work: "They've really restored much-needed order and enhanced the natural beauty in these wonderful parks that I often call our river here in Aiken."
Osbon then moved to recognize Rob Johnston – the man who joined forces with the Aiken Land Conservancy and funded a citywide tree-by-tree survey and analysis. That venture will lead to a forest management plan and the inventory of some 23,000 trees, according to the mayor.
"Rob has been so generous in backing a project of this size and cost," Osbon said.
After thanking Johnston, the mayor announced $1 million has been pledged to the land conservancy and the City by way of the Johnstons. A campaign to raise matching funds – Osbon described it as an "endowment" – will begin soon.
"That million-dollar gift will go a long way," Osbon said, "but I want to show Rob that we're all just as committed to preserving the natural beauty of our city and to the trees that make Aiken so special."
The money will be used to keep existing trees healthy and to plant mature trees where others have fallen or died.
A city poised to grow
Osbon then addressed a controversial issue here: growth. He said he was all for it – if controlled.
"We must plant new seedlings when we can and prune judiciously when the time comes," Osbon said.
According to him, the city has seen an 88 percent spike in new commercial construction permits over the course of last year. Residential permits have increased by more than 14 percent, he added.
"It means a broader tax base for all of us," Osbon said.
Other growth areas Osbon said to keep an eye on involve the Aiken Mall – "These fantastic commercial construction numbers don't even count what's about to happen at the Aiken Mall" – and the downtown area, Hotel Aiken included.
All of that, Osbon continued, is coupled with a "package of economic incentives" that will reach City Council "very soon." The package, he said, includes tax breaks and reimbursements for those willing to invest in the City and bring in "small-town feel"-compatible business.
"What we are looking for are win-win partnerships with the private sector," Osbon said.