When Luanne Hildebrandt moved back to Augusta in 1973, there was little doubt that business thrived downtown.
“It was the place to be,” said the owner of Hildebrant’s Food Store on Sixth Street, a family-owned grocery store dating to 1879.
But the sun set on downtown Augusta in 1978 when large department stores such as J.B. White headed to newly opened Regency and Augusta malls, taking customers with them.
Only a few downtown stalwarts such as Hildebrandt’s grocery stayed around waiting for a new dawn.
“I said, ‘No, I’m going to wait for it to come back downtown,’ and I have seen it come back downtown,” Hildebrandt said.
Her opinion is far from the consensus among some of the merchants that withstood a nearly abandoned downtown. Despite the creation of a business improvement district in 2008 to make downtown safer and cleaner, some longtimers disagree on whether the area is returning to better years.
Chuck Ballas Jr., the third generation to own Luigi’s Italian Restaurant on Broad Street, said the past decade has been the toughest for his business, which opened in 1949. He considered moving to Columbia County five years ago.
Luigi’s is outside the BID, a $365,000 program that runs from the Savannah River to Greene Street and Sixth to 13th streets. Property owners fund it by paying 0.00725 cents on every dollar of their property value.
Ballas’ business is down 35 percent to 40 percent from the early 1990s, a decline he attributes to the poor economy and an adult entertainment center that opened next door. Though he’s decided to keep the downtown location, Ballas thinks the area’s development could be bleak if the Augusta Commission doesn’t give more attention to downtown investment.
“How can we bring business? How can we bring people to downtown?” he asked. At some point, a limit should be placed on bar licenses issued, he said.
Johnny Finley, the owner of United Loan and Firearms at 1040 Broad St., started circa 1941, agrees that nighttime crowds at bars are hurting downtown. Though he appreciates a lunch restaurant crowd that spills over into his store, he’s not convinced downtown has bounced back.
Downtown needs more deputy patrols and cleanliness on Broad Street and the riverwalk, Finley said.
A long-lasting poor political climate hurt the business community, and Finley doesn’t think anything has changed on the commission that will make a difference when the TEE Center opens in mid-December.
MARGARET WOODARD, the executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, said not only is downtown cleaner and safer than it was five years ago, but that it’s in a prime position to have a retail boom, even attracting national stores. As an example, she points to a Walmart Neighborhood Market, which could open as early as the fall of 2013 near Walton Way and 15th Street.
She said the DDA concentrated efforts on living spaces in recent years to add to an already healthy restaurant and bar industry. She said the occupancy rate for downtown rental living space is about 99 percent, and that new projects are under way to add more living space, including renovations at 901 Broad St. and 864 Greene St.
“It is coming back,” she said. “We’re coming back full circle. People want to be part of the urban core.”
A recent analysis by The Augusta Chronicle calls that assessment into question. The 2011 analysis showed that the number of business licenses issued downtown from 2001 to 2010 dropped every year but one, falling from 499 in 2001 to 262 in 2010. The survey included addresses from Greene Street to the Savannah River from Fifth to 13th streets.
CoCo Rubio, the owner of Broad Street establishments Soul Bar and Sky City, said the DDA hasn’t proven itself to be a leader in downtown revitalization. Small business owners helped jump-start the turnaround, but now the DDA and city government need to help promote downtown as a destination, he said.
“We need to move past the idea of ‘Is downtown being revitalized?’ We’ve already done that and we are on to the next step,” Rubio said, noting that the first half of this year has been his busiest ever.
WHILE RESTAURANTS and bars are garnering some success, the market for retail stores hasn’t returned downtown, said Bonnie Ruben, the president of BR Investment group, which owns 114-year-old
Ruben’s at 914 Broad St., the Ramada hotel and several vacant properties.
Small stores open and close frequently because there still isn’t foot traffic to support them, Ruben said. For retail to succeed, she’d like to see an economic plan that brings small- to medium-size corporations downtown.
Woodard acknowledged that retail is “the last piece of the pie” for downtown revitalization.
According to an audit performed by the DDA in March 2011 at the request of The Augusta Chronicle, 22 percent of downtown buildings and storefronts were unoccupied. The survey covered Broad Street from Fifth to 13th streets and
the cross streets from Ellis to Reynolds.
Woodard argued that the survey results were not an accurate representation of revitalization. Where some storefronts are empty, the upper floors are filled with living and office space, she said.
Bill Merry, a former owner of Merry’s Trash and Treasures, founded in 1962 and at 1236 Broad St., rejects claims that downtown is problem-plagued, saying the furniture store has never had a security issue.
Some retail stores won’t considering moving despite their own questions about whether progress has hit downtown.
Fran Strickland and son-in-law Chad Bearden, owners of Furman Jewelers on Eighth Street, started circa 1952, said revitalization has been minimal at best. They’re holding out for the return of a national department or retail store to increase sidewalk traffic.
“I wouldn’t move for any reason. I would never leave downtown. This is my home,” Strickland said.
Recent years have been the toughest for Sidney’s Department Store and Uniforms in its 118-year history, said owner Steven Fishman, who started with the family business in the 1980s. He isn’t sure his business will still be around when – or if – revitalization fully takes place downtown.
“I will probably be the last to have this business,” he said. “I will probably work until I can no longer work.”