It’s still in the preliminary stages, but local officials have a vision to return downtown Augusta to its artistic heyday.
Mayor Deke Copenhaver is spearheading an initiative for a Downtown Arts District.
“What we’re hoping to do is ultimately move forward with a major public-private partnership arts initiative to help fund facilities for our local arts community,” Copenhaver said. “Arts and culture are such an economic driver for the city of Augusta. A great example is that it was our arts and cultural community that really helped seal the deal to bring Starbucks to town.”
Copenhaver said the arts facilities involved and total amount of funds that need to be raised are still being determined. The mayor and a small group are looking at the facility needs of local arts organizations, but the Miller Theater, Imperial Theatre, Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art and the planned performing arts center are some being considered.
The performing arts center has been discussed for at least 15 years, when the music hall at Bell Auditorium was taken down, said Brenda Durant, the executive director of the Greater Augusta Arts Council.
Rather than having separate fundraising campaigns for numerous projects, it’s more effective to have one large effort, she said.
“I think rather than piecemealing projects together, which we’ve tended to do in the arts community, it would be kind of all at once and a transformation,” Durant said. “The great news is that it came from the top down. This is going to be transformational because when you work on an urban core like downtown, it’s going to affect the whole community.”
Representatives from Minn.-based Artspace Projects, a nonprofit organization that creates and maintains affordable work spaces for artists and arts organizations, visited Augusta in April to consider the city as the site for its next project. Artspace has projects in 14 states.
Joe Butler, the regional project manager for Artspace, said he met with the city’s leadership and arts officials and viewed five to six potential sites. He also looked at several possible areas for construction. Augusta would be among Artspace’s first projects in the Southeast, he said.
“Our conversations in Augusta were extremely productive,” Butler said. “We were really excited about the opportunity … There have been no commitments made from either side, but there’s a genuine desire to explore Artspace as a possible developer for arts in Augusta. We’re continuing to talk about potential next steps with the leadership of Augusta.”
From 1850 to 1950, there were more than a dozen theaters between Seventh and Ninth streets and Green and Broad streets, and downtown Augusta was thriving, said Levi Hill IV, the chairman of the Miller Theater steering committee. The theaters included the Miller, the Imperial, two Modjeska Theaters, Rialto Theatre, Grand Opera House, Dreamland Theatre, a masonic temple and Lenox Theatre.
When shopping malls came to Augusta in the late 1970s, most of the downtown businesses and residents followed them, leading to the decline of downtown and its entertainment district. Many of the theaters either burned down or have been converted into bars or businesses, Hill said.
Hill said a downtown entertainment district could again attract people from Augusta and surrounding areas, who would spend money on hotels, restaurants and retail.
“I think it’s the right and good thing for Augusta to be planning. It’s really a necessary part of revitalizing a downtown, in general,” Hill said. “To bring residents downtown, they have to have things to do. They want some form of entertainment, they want restaurants, they want retail shops. A natural part of bringing a downtown back is having an entertainment district.”
Charles Scavullo, the Imperial’s executive director, is one of the members of the group working with the mayor. If selected for the initiative, Imperial Theatre has the potential to be successfully completed, he said. Imperial Theatre is eligible for $1 million in special purpose local option sales tax funds, but the theater could need as much as $10 million for renovations.
The most pressing projects are repointing the brick work; upgrading the electrical systems; replacing the fire curtain, which dates back to 1916; replacing the fire escapes on the east and west alleys; and upgrading the heating and air conditioning in the front portion of the theater.
“Getting that done would effectively enable us to be able to offer a beautiful venue both inside and outside for our patrons,” Scavullo said.