Downtown Augusta, once the hub of commercial vitality, is on a path back to success but the road ahead might be bumpy, according to key players in the downtown economy.
In recent decades, major retailers such as J.B. White’s and Davison’s left Broad Street for shopping malls, storefronts emptied and the perception of a crime-ridden downtown grew.
Previous revitalization efforts brought completion of Riverwalk Augusta, the construction of a $50 million Augusta Convention Center addition, and a plethora of restaurants and bars, but many are still waiting for something to spur revitalization.
Downtown developers Bryan Haltermann and Paul King think that more involvement from city leaders could provide a boost to downtown.
“Downtown moving forward, it takes a special chemistry,” Haltermann said. “Part of that chemistry is private investors, but part of it is the public sector, too. We don’t have the right chemistry right now to really be a total success.”
As the president of Haltermann Partners Inc., his job is to buy underused buildings, renovate them and then manage the properties. In the past 37 years, Haltermann has acquired 25 downtown buildings, including 80 loft apartments and 40 commercial spaces. He estimates that his company has about $10 million invested in downtown.
“We still have sidewalks that haven’t been reinvested in very much in the last 50 years,” he said. “That’s usually one of the first things that downtowns do. The local government, who owns that kind of space, they do basic infrastructure improvement and let the private sector invest in buildings. The local government has done some of that, but they really need to do a lot more.”
King, the general manager of Rex Property and Land, said in an e-mail that since the Augusta Commission did away with the Clean Augusta Downtown Initiative, public spaces are now littered with trash, and national investors have pulled back.
Rex, like Haltermann’s company, concentrates on refurbishing old downtown properties.
King, who also would like to see managed parking and more reliable public transportation downtown, said an attitude change from the commission could go a long way.
“All districts benefit from a successful downtown. This has been shown in a city after city across our nation,” he said.
In Margaret Woodard’s opinion, the revitalization of a downtown is an evolutionary process that ends with bringing in more retail outlets.
“Where I think we are above average is our downtown living population, our downtown venues and our entertainment,” said Woodard, the executive director of the city’s Downtown Development Authority. “Where I think we are below par is the retail component … and looking at what other cities have done with parking and beautification.”
The authority embarked earlier this year on a private- and public-funded retail survey to pinpoint exactly what is needed downtown to rejuvenate the central business district. Though the study is incomplete, Woodard said downtown is missing businesses that serve people living there, such as a computer or cellphone store and a grocer.
Sae Shin, who owns three downtown restaurants, said retail anchors such as a Starbucks or a Gap would likely bring out more shoppers to his establishments. Shin, who started 1102 Downtown Bar & Grill a decade ago, also owns Soy Noodle House and Blue Sky Kitchen, all on Broad Street.
He agreed with Woodard that a grocery store is also needed.
“There’s people with money in the downtown area, but there’s nowhere for them to go,” he said.
Tennent Houston, the managing partner of Merry Land Properties, said putting a focus on downtown’s arts and entertainment district could spark business. Restoration projects, such as the one underway with Broad Street’s Miller Theater by Symphony Orchestra Augusta, is one such example, he said.
“We already see people who are fans of just about every kind of music coming to the different venues downtown, including the Imperial Theatre and many local bars,” said Houston, who has been in the local market for 30 years and operates three apartment buildings from the 900 to 1200 blocks of Greene Street. “I think the plans for the Miller Theater and developments like that could really take entertainment to the next level.”
Another way to attract more people downtown, Haltermann said, is to rebrand Augusta’s First Friday, which started as a small arts festival and has segued into something less organized.
“There’s no one in charge,” Haltermann said. “There’s a fair amount of lawlessness after a certain hour that does not encourage people with money to come downtown. Our signature event is, in my mind, more negative than positive.”
Shin added that the monthly event has become too restricted.
“It used to be musicians and artists on the streets selling stuff,” he said. “Let them do that. That’s the thing that makes it family-oriented.”
Though the restaurant selection downtown has substantially increased in the past decade, Haltermann said he would still like to see diners have more options.
“You need restaurants that appeal to an older and affluent demographic,” said Haltermann, who rents to 10 downtown restaurants. “We want plenty of young people, but we want middle-age people and older people also. We want a good mix.”
Shin sees the lack of building upkeep as a major impediment to downtown’s revitalization and said restoration projects would lead to more people living and doing business downtown.
Woodard contends that investment continues to pour in and said the authority serves as a liaison to help investors find financial assistance, such as loans and other available incentives, to aid in historical and other renovation projects.
“I think we’re solid in investment,” she said. “We don’t have near as many buildings that are empty. We’re working real hard to do whatever it takes to get a building in the right hands and put part of the money together and be that economic development engine that make its happen.”
For Haltermann, creating a residential base of owners, rather than renters, is an over-arching goal to downtown’s success.
“You always want more of and better residential units, and hopefully one day, actual condominiums and owner-occupied units,” he said. “Then you have people like myself who are really invested in downtown. They’re going to demand things like better police protection, cleaner sidewalks and better infrastructure.”