Can a New Street-Legal Golf Car Ordinance Help Connect People to Downtown Augusta?
In a recent interview, Augusta Commissioner Sean Frantom said people won’t recognize downtown Augusta in 3-5 years. Aside from the collective sentiment around town that the cultural and economic impact of a new cyber center will hit sooner rather than later, that time span coincides with a vision that the Convention and Visitors Bureau created in 2016.
Branded Destination Blueprint, the plan’s purpose was to lay the groundwork for a city that needed to do a better job of capitalizing on its best assets, namely a historical downtown and a beautiful river that runs right through the city. The thought was that as long as city leaders and businesses continue to create a more vibrant community with improved river access, more restaurants and breweries, and more attractive housing options downtown, both locals and out-of-towners would show up and spend more money.
Some parts of the plan, such as an expanded and elevated Augusta Common, are more ambitious than others and will take a relatively long time to execute. The CVB wanted to start with the small things.
One of those things was golf car tourism. A staggering 85 percent of the world’s golf cars are made in Augusta, according to the CVB, and they’re being shipped all over the world from manufacturers like like Augusta-based Textron Specialized Vehicles and Club Car.
In the coming months, Augustans could be seeing more of them downtown, where the vehicles would primarily be used for tours put on by the CVB. Right now, those tours include an Augusta history tour, an African-American history tour, and a James Brown tour.
A new ordinance aimed at making PTVs (personalized transportation vehicles) street-legal downtown was passed earlier this month and could turn those weekly tours into daily events in Augusta.
“It would allow the tours to be a little more dynamic and be run more often,” said Jennifer Bowen, vice president of destination development for the CVB. “There are tours that are operated on golf carts in Nashville and Tuscaloosa with a company called Joyride. We’ve had conversations with that organization.”
When the Augusta Commission approved the ordinance without discussion on June 12, Frantom was pleased that everyone came to the table to work out issues of safety and insurance.
“Everybody’s excited,” Frantom said.
The new ordinance, which went through two readings in the Augusta Commission, will make it legal for personal transportation vehicles (PTVs) to operate on certain downtown streets as long as they are registered and pass certain safety qualifications.
The difference between Georgia and some other states is that Georgia does not recognize PTVs as vehicles available for hire, which is the case in Tennessee and Alabama. In Nashville, tourists can hail a PTV. That won’t be the case in Augusta. Still, opening the doors for individuals and businesses to buy PTVs (they can cost up to several thousand dollars) could start to change the look and feel of downtown.
“I think it’ll be a unique and dynamic experience,” Bowen said. “People do have an expectation for a golf-like experience in the whole city, and this expectation will deliver in the downtown area.”
Right now, city tours are the only organized plan that has been discussed by the CVB with regard to golf cars, but allowing them to be driven downtown will open up other doors as well. Should they choose to invest in PTVs, businesses would be able to service employees by providing a shuttle service to local restaurants during lunch. Venues like The Miller Theater could contract with commercial operators for events. Hotels could own their own PTVs, which would be convenient for guests and a prevention against people driving under the influence of alcohol.
“I think that would be a wonderful idea for us,” said Deborah Sleeth, general manager of the Holiday Inn Express downtown. “If that’s going to be a possibility in the future I would want to push my ownership to (buy a PTV).”
The result, in theory, would be a more connected district with a more attractive entertainment scene.
“Hypothetically, the breweries could get together and contract with commercial operators and, say every Friday, they could be willing to contract and shuttle people from the Broad Street dining area to the brewery and back,” Bowen said.
Brey Sloane, owner of Riverwatch Brewery, which is located just outside the downtown area, said that a costly investment in a PTV would be questionable considering her brewery lies more than a mile away from the core of downtown. She has considered running a “beer bus” back and forth from that area.
Frantom said the current “go live date” for golf cars to hit the streets is Sept. 1, which builds in time for decals and signage. He is also hopeful about the possibility of a partnership between Textron and the CVB.
“We don’t always do a good job of telling the story of Augusta,” Frantom said. “It’ll give people something to do.”