Posted July 8, 2007 07:40 pm

Downtown: It's better than it used to be

Whenever I show visitors around downtown Augusta, there is almost always a question about why there are "so many vacant buildings."

To avoid giving a long, drawn-out answer that attempts to explain the last 30 years of downtown history, I usually just say something like “Well it’s a lot better than it was several years ago.”

By all accounts, downtown is more alive than it was during most of the 1980s and early 1990s, a period when “you could fire a cannon down Broad Street and never hurt a soul,” according to longtime Augusta photographer Frank Christian.

The central business district is certainly more vibrant today than it was when I moved here in July 1997.

Like most media blowhards, I’m often critical of the pace at which downtown revitalization efforts move. I can’t help but be laudatory, though, when I look back on the achievements that have been made in 10 years.

Let’s start with the big buildings. The H.L. Green and vacant Davison’s department store building are the main offices for the Richmond County Board of Education. The JB White building – though vacant then and vacant now – has just been purchased by an Atlanta real estate partnership with a $9 million plan to renovate it (and a couple of adjacent properties) into high-end residential and commercial space.

The historic Enterprise Mill, which 10 years ago would have been a great candidate for a haunted house, is now the swankest business and residential address in town.

The number of downtown apartment units have nearly doubled as property owners saw the potential in buildings such as the old Broad Street Augusta Fire Department headquarters and Brislin Building.

Think of the many successful businesses downtown that didn’t exist 10 years ago, such as Mellow Mushroom, Blue Sky Kitchen, Room 9, Metro A Coffeehouse, The Bee’s Knees – all of which occupy spaces that were vacant for many years.

Think of the nonretail businesses that have renovated Broad Street buildings into first-class professional office space, such as ESi, Toole Engineers and Nicholas Dickinson & Associates.

In 1997, there was no Augusta Common and no Springfield Village Park. There were, however, five strip joints within a one block radius of the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce. Now there’s only three.

Talk of creating a “business improvement district” was still years away as was the idea to sell city-owned riverfront property to private developers. The business improvement district is now all but a done deal and the riverfront property is being prepped for a Bluffton, S.C., firm planning to build an upscale condominium tower.

Ten years ago, First Fridays were lightly attended affairs that wound down by nightfall. Anyone who has attended a First Friday recently knows that is no longer the case.

The Westobou festival (think Arts in the Heart on steroids) scheduled next fall promises to attract thousands of people throughout the Southeast to downtown Augusta.
Does Augusta have a first-rate downtown? No, but based on my observations during the past decade, it’s headed on the right track.

When I show people around downtown Augusta in 2017, I hope their comments will not include anything about a preponderance of vacant buildings. But if it does, I hope I can truthfully tell them downtown is better than it was several years ago.

SELL IT, ALREADY! If you’re like me, you’ve noticed the little signs that have been staked all over town for more than a year: Queen-size mattress set, $195, (706) 339-2793.

And, if you’re like me, you have wondered whether these people have hijacked a Serta tractor trailer and are fencing the contents or are just really determined to sell their old mattress. Unlike me, however, you probably would never call the number to find out.
If you did, you would discover the signs are the work of a local businesswoman who is selling new mattresses (she’s supplied by her wholesaler friend) out of a warehouse near Lake Olmstead.

Hey, at least she’s not selling them off the back of a Serta truck. As for whether her signs constitute littering, I’ll leave that one up to the proper authorities.

LATEST COSTCO RUMOR: It’s going to be on Bobby Jones Expressway, somewhere near the Sam’s Club store. That’s location rumor No. 3 for the warehouse-style retailer, the first being near Bobby Jones Ford and the second being the shopping center that Blanchard and Calhoun Commercial is trying to push on the northwest corner of Interstate 20 and Wheeler Road.