Augusta officials seem to be suffering from some type of psychosis. One week they are on the verge of declaring the downtown area a slum and the next week attempting to find ways to draw tourism to the area. The casual observer might come to the conclusion that the Augusta Commission might need a prescription for Prozac.
Downtown business owners were horrified to learn that in order to secure the millions of dollars needed to finish the restoration of the municipal building, the city was applying for a federal grant that is aimed at cleaning up depressed urban areas. To qualify for the money, though, the city would have to declare the downtown area a ‘slum.’ However, no sooner than that little nugget of information hit the press, commissioners began discussing ways to draw tourist to the downtown area which left people wondering if the commission was having some kind of nervous breakdown.
In terms of tourism ideas, no one has forgotten Andy Cheek’s suggestion years ago of flooding Ellis Street and extending the Augusta Canal through the heart of downtown. Andy himself will admit the idea was pie in the sky and says he knew such a thing would never happen and what he was trying to do was get other people excited about the urban core.
The latest idea to be floated came from none other than Marion Williams. His idea is to turn Broad Street into a giant verandah with misting stations and water walls. Naturally, building decks over the already crowded sunken parking areas would create all kinds of problems — not to mention the cost of building and maintaining such a thing. While the misting stations would be nice, who wants to sit on a verandah that has car exhaust fume rafting up through the cracks in the deck floor?
Even the Mayor has gotten into the act. Deke Copenhaver has helped raise private funding to refurbish the eyesore that was once the Chamber of Commerce building. At first, people were led to believe that the building would be repurposed as some sort of community gathering spot. However, the plan has now morphed into the city using the building as a jazz cafe which has people asking if the city is going to issue itself a liquor license and go into competition with the numerous other clubs on Broad Street. Someone might want to point out to the Mayor that numerous Jazz club concepts have been tried downtown and they have all failed.
City leaders somehow think that people from Columbia or Atlanta will drive to Augusta to take a picture at the James Brown statue, watch a combo at the city operated Jazz club and marvel at the police and their SWAT armored vehicles that line Broad Street on First Friday.
David Hutchinson, owner of the Book Tavern downtown, feels the city has their priorities completely backward.
“They can’t maintain what we already have downtown,” he says, “so why build more things that won’t be maintained?”
Hutchinson has a point, Riverwalk has been allowed to fall into disrepair and all the volunteer cleanup work on the canal appears to have been in vain. Volunteers cleaned and restored Aqueduct Park and the Canal Authority has refused to maintain it properly. Across town, the city operated golf course remains a shadow of what it once was. And, of course, everyone remembers the last great “tourist destination” that was built with tax payer’s money, the failed Golf Hall of Fame and Botanical Gardens.
It is a shame that the city spent millions of dollars to create the Trade and Exhibit Center only to find themselves several years later declaring the same area a slum. Indeed, anyone looking for a place to have a convention is going to run a search engine request and what are they going to see on Google? The top results are going to include the mugging at Riverwalk, the melees that have occurred after hours on First Friday and of course, that downtown Augusta is a slum.
The fact is, Augusta is not and will not in the near future be any kind of a tourist destination. Sure, we have some great golf courses, neat old historic buildings and all kinds of quirky restaurants and bars downtown. However, the city does not have a Six Flags or a giant aquarium or a botanical garden. A Revolutionary battle did occur here, but it was a footnote in history and now much of what was that battlefield is covered in asphalt. Sure, this city is the birthplace of James Brown, but his version of Graceland is 45 minutes away in Beech Island.
“Instead of trying to turn the city into what it is not,” opined Hutchinson, “we all ought to be trying to find ways to make downtown more pleasant for the people who live and work here.” Most home and business owners downtown agree that calling the area a slum is not going to neither raise property values nor drive any form of tourism.
Thomas scott hudson is a free lance reporter for WGAC News and a local paralegal. For comments or story ideas email email@example.com