Augusta’s Harrisburg neighborhood has become synonymous with crime and bad landlords, but some local business owners are intent on turning the tide of public opinion.
Butch Palmer remembers Crawford Avenue in Harrisburg as a thriving thoroughfare when he was a child, with interior decorators, doctors’ offices, antique stores and other businesses lining the street. Those businesses are almost all gone, but Palmer recently opened 606 Salon as a part of his efforts to revitalize the area.
Palmer has gained notoriety for his activism for the neighborhood, and he ran for the Augusta Commission in 2009. He says the neighborhood has had issues with crime in the past but that it has experienced dramatic improvement over the past year.
“It’s a different neighborhood from a year ago, it’s really cleaned up,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of positive changes and a lot of improvement.”
Palmer had a salon for 15 years but closed it in 1997 to devote more time to managing his properties in the neighborhood. After many requests from old customers, he decided to re-open. He isn’t worried about getting enough business.
“I’ve been really well-received,” he said.
In June 2010, the Harrisburg/West End area was declared a state opportunity zone in an effort to attract businesses to the area and encourage existing ones to expand. The designation makes a $3,500 income tax credit available to businesses for each new job created in the zone.
George Patty, a project director with the city’s planning and zoning commission, said the response has not been overwhelming.
“We knew it would be slow,” he said.
Businesses that apply for the tax credit go directly to the state, so Patty has no way to track the number of jobs being created. He said the quiet response was no surprise, but that the credit is still a way to encourage and support business in that area.
“It’s just another tool in the toolbox,” he said.
Lori Davis, the president of the Harrisburg Neighborhood Association, said business investment is a waste until law enforcement makes large-scale changes to the way crime is prevented and discouraged.
“Eventually, the neighborhood will be different, but I don’t know how long that’s going to take,” she said.
Panhandlers, prostitutes and drug-dealing are some of the crimes Davis listed that keep the neighborhood from blossoming.
Until something is done to stop the offenders, she has little optimism for businesses’ success.
GARY RICHARDSON recently remodeled his Sparkle Car Wash at Walton Way and Crawford Avenue, and while Davis said she’s grateful for the support Richardson’s investment shows, she’s concerned for him.
“We’re happy, of course, that he is in our area,” she said. “I hate to see him just lose his shirt down here.”
Richardson said he has no intention of leaving Harrisburg, and that he invested in the car wash because he believed it would be a success.
“I don’t see it as an undesirable area,” he said. “The issues that Harrisburg has become famous for are probably going on everywhere, it’s just not as publicized.”
Richardson has owned Sparkle Car Wash for more than 15 years, but until recently it was just a drive-up car wash with vacuums. He says he has sunk a considerable amount of money to turn it into an express car wash with more features and a slicker design, and even has an attendant present 12 hours a day.
“I wouldn’t have done this if I didn’t believe in the area,” he said.
It’s a small percentage of residents that cause most of the headline-getting trouble, Richardson said, and it’s not fair to the rest of the community to manage his business in fear of the troublemakers.
“They deserve the services everybody else around town gets,” he said. “These good folks deserve places to eat, service centers to get their oil changed and businesses nearby.”
LARRY LESSER HAS OWNED Broadway Bait & Tackle on Broad Street for more than 30 years, and he says he hears from customers all the time who are concerned about crime in the neighborhood.
“It’s perceived as a bad neighborhood,” he said. “But this area really is not any more or less dangerous than downtown.”
The Kroc Center is bringing more people from other parts of the area, and Lesser hopes the traffic will provide a more honest idea of the neighborhood. A new stream of people coming through is a potential source of revenue that could bring in more businesses, as other areas with Kroc centers across the country have seen, he said.
“In San Diego, it made a huge difference,” Lesser said. “Where there was a crack house, there’s now a Starbucks.”
The key, he believes, has a lot to do with home ownership and the gentrification of the area in general.
“I want more businesses down here, but what has to happen first is people wanting to live here,” he said.
But will people want to live in a neighborhood with few businesses?
“It’s really a little of both, I guess – sort of a chicken-egg thing,” he said.
Lesser believes that day is coming, and he recently renovated the outside of his shop in good faith that the area will soon be known more for being a close neighborhood than a crime center.
“It’s already a lot prettier than it used to be,” he said. “I want to be in a position to be ready when the positive change comes.”