Dissatisfaction is mounting about a private service responsible for helping clean up downtown Augusta. Some property owners say they won’t support it when it comes up for renewal this year and want more security after the shootings after the July 6 First Friday festival.
The Clean Augusta Downtown Initiative was hired four years ago as the service of choice to be paid by the Business Improvement District, a special tax district spanning roughly 25 blocks bound by Reynolds and Greene streets from Eighth to 13th streets, plus a few facing parcels.
When the management plan was approved by the Augusta Commission in 2007, the Business Improvement District contract stated that in addition to sidewalk cleaning, landscape maintenance, and graffiti and panhandler removal, it also would offer “night safety patrol” and “police weekend night patrol.” all within an anticipated district budget of $335,400.
After the contract was approved, however, hiring special-duty police or paying private security was deemed by those in charge as too expensive and unnecessary.
“It tremendously increased the cost of it,” said accountant Sanford Loyd, who serves on the board established by the Downtown Development Authority to guide the Clean Augusta Downtown Initiative. At the time, “security issues did not appear to be a major concern,” Loyd said.
“We felt like to try to do all of those things in the Business Improvement District for here would not work,” he said.
Instead, the initiative has focused on cleaning. Armed only with radios to call for help, its eight staffers work mostly weekdays, removing debris from sidewalks, a service that authority Director Margaret Woodard and a handful of downtown business owners say is invaluable.
Bill Merry, who owns an antiques market among his 15 tracts in thedistrict, said the initiative provides a service on which the city was falling short.
“The city doesn’t have the money to take care of it daily,” said Merry, who paid about $3,600 in extra taxes for the initiative’s services last year, according to tax records.
One of the district’s largest property owners, Julian Osbon, acknowledged support for the district is waning, however.
“I think it’s in trouble right now. Maybe it’s the economy, maybe it’s a lot of other things,” said Osbon, whose companies own 17 district parcels.
“The original idea was to increase the amount of security and cleanliness,” Osbon said. “I supported it years ago, before we got in it. It doesn’t seem to have accomplished what we tried to accomplish.”
Osbon and others want to make sure security and cleanliness are sufficient when Augusta Convention Center opens in January and draws more tourists downtown.
“Those conventions ... are the first impression (of Augusta) for a lot of people,” Osbon said.
Sae Shin, who owns Blue Sky Kitchen and Soy Noodle House and co-owns 1102 Downtown Bar and Grill, all Broad Street restaurants inside the BID, said the cleanup workers were “kind of slack” when it came to cleaning and dispersing panhandlers.
“If you’ve got five or six guys, they should get it done,” Shin said.
Max Bolgla is one of several property owners who said he opposed the tax district five years ago and will again when the development authority distributes ballots. He loves his downtown apartment building but says empty storefronts remain downtown while the initiative offers nothing to customers.
“All my tenants worry about is their tattoos,” Bolgla said.
CoCo Rubio, the owner of The Soul Bar who helped pioneer a revival of downtown nightlife, said he supported the district the first time around but no longer. Restaurateur Jai West, who rents space in the J.B. White’s building, said she, too, was disappointed by the cleanup initiative’s performance.
“We kind of all thought it was going to be one thing, and then it just turned out to be something different,” West said.
Woodard said she’s preparing surveys now to distribute to downtown property owners for their opinions about the cleanup services and will later distribute ballots to owners. The development authority unanimously voted in May to continue the tax district and potentially increase its boundaries and obtain letters of support from the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau, Augusta Tomorrow and the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce.
The approximately 260 property owners inside the district are assessed an additional 6 or 7 mills on their properties’ taxable value, resulting in extra taxes ranging from a few hundred dollars to more than $35,000 annually, depending on a parcel’s value.
Augusta businessman Clay Boardman, who owns properties in the district, said he supports the continuation of the district and the cleanup program. He doesn’t expect any change in the program without an increase in the district tax.
This Friday, the Clean Augusta Downtown Initiative has agreed to work late for First Friday. The events at the monthly festival will include a concert on Augusta Common and a nighttime concert at the Jessye Norman Amphitheater.