Augusta Commission Approves Initiatives to Jump-Start Entertainment District
The Augusta Commission has approved a series of downtown-focused initiatives and rule changes to make the area’s “entertainment district” a more robust and attractive destination.
As people continue to move to Augusta, there will be a growing demand for entertainment in the downtown core that is on par with cities that create excitement among young people.
Business owners and city officials want to make sure that the area is ready for those demands from locals, visitors and the city’s new residents.
Among the initiatives are more lenient laws for food trucks in the area, an allowance for drinking in designated sections on the sidewalk outside bars and changing the district’s noise ordinance from 11 p.m. to midnight.
On Tuesday, the Commission voted to move forward with those initiatives, which will apply to downtown’s newly designated entertainment district: everything from 5th Street to 13th Street, and from Greene Street to the Savannah River.
Commissioner Sean Frantom said the city wants “to make sure we continue to have innovative things to go with ongoing development.”
“Part of it is having that image of the cool factor,” said Bennish Brown, CEO of the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau. “That might mean different things to different people. The food trucks are part of the cool factor…the craft beer scene is part of the cool factor. They’re part of the entrepreneurial spirit. You’re working with that grassroots entrepreneur.”
“I would like to see a ‘Tasty Tuesday,’” said Frantom, referring to his idea for a food truck gathering that the committee has proposed. “Every Tuesday, people would know you can go to the Common to eat lunch.”
The committee that proposed the entertainment district agreed on a new ordinance allowing food trucks to park on the street in spaces that are not in front of restaurants. Frantom also proposed food trucks locating outside the cyber center.
When it comes to entertainment, the city has already seen big signs of progress coming from the outside. A-list musicians, comedians and other artists are performing in Augusta more frequently than they have in years. But making Augusta a cultural hub on a weekly basis will require more local investment, energy and creativity.
“There needs to be events all the time,” said Eric Kinlaw, owner of The Bee’s Knees and also part of the committee with Frantom and Brown. “Street events would be great, more than just Arts in the Heart. There is a lot already, but there could be more. Not enough going on year-round…not enough cohesion between businesses.”
The committee discussed a possible open container law for the entertainment district but decided against it.
“Unless you have an immense police presence, you’re going to have problems,” Kinlaw said. “And nobody wants an immense police presence.”
However, the Commission did vote to allow customers to drink in designated sections of the sidewalk right outside the bars, which would go hand-in-hand with the smoking ban that will go into effect Jan. 1. Specific rules have yet to be laid out.
The purpose of these initiatives is to create more community, innovation and energy downtown that will eventually lead to bigger and better things. For example, Kinlaw said Augusta is missing out on a huge opportunity by not hosting a James Brown-themed festival every year.
Plans for that kind of event could be coming soon. In October, Deke Copenhaver told WRDW that there is $450,000 in seed money for an initiative called All-in Augusta, led by the CVB, to develop an “international soul festival” that would honor James Brown and other legendary Augusta musicians.
“I think we’re at the beginning of things changing,” Kinlaw said. “They’ve been stagnant for awhile.”
Before Brown took over as the CEO role of the CVB, he was CEO of Travel Tacoma + Pierce County, a destination marketing organization in Tacoma, Wa. Brown said that when he left Tacoma, the city had started to reap the benefits of capitalizing on the opportunities it had as a port city.
Brown sees that as a parallel between Tacoma and Augusta and considers creative use of the Savannah River to be a key to Augusta’s success.
“Those things will bring life and experience along the riverfront,” Brown said. “When Tacoma developed access to its waterfront, that was a big part of the beginning of awareness of visitors to start paying attention to Tacoma.”
Kinlaw added that the cleanliness of downtown has been lacking and that new efforts would be a big boost to the area. He said the former Clean Augusta Downtown Initiative, a group that complemented city initiatives in keeping downtown clean until it was terminated in 2013, is an example of the kind of vision downtown needs right now.
“You treat places like you see them treated,” Kinlaw said. “If it’s dirty and filthy and doesn’t make sense, you’re not going to want that. I think it needs to be cared for a little better.”