Downtown business owners are split about what should happen to First Friday in the wake of a shooting that left six people wounded after the festival.
In a news conference Saturday, a group of merchants and downtown residents called for the end of First Friday in its current form. Others say they don’t want to lose an event that brings money and residents to the area.
“I’m afraid if they end First Friday, it will keep people from coming downtown,” said Caren Bricker, the owner of Vintage Ooollee at 1121 Broad St. “That won’t stop the problem.”
Jeff Gorelick, the owner of Ruben’s Department Store on 914 Broad St., where two bullet holes were left in his windows from the shooting Friday night, said the event needs to be better-coordinated by someone if it is to continue. He bemoaned the estimated $1,100 it will cost him to repair the windows.
“Who’s going to pay for that? … The arts council or whoever’s in charge? Somebody has to pay for it. I guess me,” he said. “I’m not saying do away with any activities downtown, but somebody has to control it.”
The Greater Augusta Arts Council has been running the event on a very limited scale since 2007, said Brenda Durant, the executive director of the group.
“We’ve made it a very simple event,” she said. The arts council publicizes the event and organizes a few performances, such as roller derby demonstrations and pyrotechnics.
“That’s all we really coordinate,” she said. “First Friday is entirely in the hands of the store owners.”
First Friday began in 1994 as an art gallery walk designed to draw families downtown and showcase businesses. It was originally run by Main Street Augusta, which was funded by the Downtown Development Authority. Main Street Augusta dissolved itself in 2006, and the DDA relinquished the festival for financial reasons. It was then picked up by the arts council in 2007.
Durant said if business owners want to stop playing host to First Friday, all they need to do is close their doors and not allow vendors to set up in front of their stores.
Some business owners said they don’t have a problem with First Friday itself. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any enforcement of the festival’s hours – 5-9 p.m., according to the arts council’s Web site – and what happens after the official event ends. Friday’s shooting occurred at 11:30 p.m.
“First Friday is from 5 to 9 (p.m.),” said Kimberly Townsend, the owner of Curvitude Boutique at 1033 Broad St. “This happened 2½ hours later.”
Those who want to reinvent First Friday want to do so either at a different venue or time, saying that will still bring money and patronage to downtown.
“Essentially, what it boils down to is nobody will take responsibility for the oversight of First Friday, other than to insist that it is an event that lasts from 5 p.m. until 9:30 p.m. on Friday night,” said Ed Presnell, a downtown resident and former Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce president, who spoke at Saturday’s news conference. “That may be defined. However, there’s a different, unofficial First Friday that begins at that point, and that’s when all the troubles begin. At that point, we have total chaos and lawlessness.”
Even if First Friday ceases to exist, Presnell said, that does not mean people will stop making trouble downtown, and he doesn’t have any answers on how to address that.
Durant said she doesn’t believe ending First Friday will solve the problem.
“The problem is not First Friday. The problem is that we have kids who walk downtown, who live nearby, who are looking for something to do and there is nothing to offer them,” she said. “In my mind, that is the problem that needs to be solved.”
Some questioned whether the curfew, which makes it illegal for anyone younger than 18 to be out between midnight and 5 a.m., is being enforced strongly enough.
“The sheriff’s an elected official. Those are questions that we can ask,” said Augusta Commission member Matt Aitken, who attended the news conference in support of revamping First Friday.
One alternative Presnell suggested is an event similar to First Friday that would be held on Saturday morning to complement the Saturday Market.
He said the point is not to kill First Friday.
“Business owners need a First Friday-type event. That’s not the point,” he said. “The point is to shift it to a safe environment.”