They came to see Ray Charles but took in much more.
A small Augusta contingent visited downtown Albany, Ga., on Friday to examine the city’s effort to capitalize on its most famous native son, but they learned the $2.2 million Ray Charles Plaza was just a piece of the effort to make the Flint River’s banks a tourist draw.
“This is just one feature” in the city’s larger riverfront revitalization project, said Assistant Albany City Manager Wes Smith, who led the group of four on a tour. “You can make a day of going to all these different features.”
Beyond the revolving Charles statue, whose details include a waterfall, audio of his hits and a concrete piano keyboard streetscape, Smith showed the group other elements, including a waterfront amphitheater, a park, a playground and splash pad, an Imax theater and the $30 million Flint Riverquarium, all of which are within a few steps of each other.
“The rest of the gang is going to be sorry they missed it,” said Augusta Commission member Marion Williams, the only commissioner to make the 400-mile round trip. The rest – including four commissioners who agreed to go and Mayor Hardie Davis – cited other commitments or illnesses in not taking part.
Williams was impressed by the Riverquarium and suggested including an aquarium on Augusta’s next sales tax referendum.
A driving force behind Augusta’s effort to honor James Brown, Williams was most impressed by Ray Charles Plaza.
“I was floored,” despite seeing photographs, “to see how it really worked, how it turned,” he said. “Just then, I had Georgia on my mind.”
Also taking the city van to Albany were new Deputy Administrator Ted Rhinehart, Planning Commission Chairman Melvin Ivey and Downtown Development Authority Director Margaret Woodard.
Woodard expressed interest in a newer addition, the “Artpark,” a partially demolished building in which the public can paint alongside commissioned artists.
Dougherty County Commissioner Clinton Johnson said the Artpark had cut down on graffiti elsewhere in the city.
Though Albany officials said the attractions have become a day trip for many, they weren’t able to cite any
tourism numbers or maintenance expenses. They promised to send a report to Augusta.
The park attracts Albany residents such as Shaquiria Hamilton, a college student who regularly visits the park with her son or significant other.
“I just like to sit on the swing or just talk,” she said. “People have picnics on the hill. My son and I go out there a lot.”
Ivey said he was impressed by how the area was family-friendly, and that the government had taken the initiative to create the attraction.
“Sometimes you’ve got to get in there and do something yourself,” Ivey said.
Also taking part in the tour was Gary Warner, a consultant with Cooper Carry, an architectural and environmental design firm hired to help Augusta create a downtown concept plan using sales tax dollars, including Transportation Investment Act funding.
Warner said the group was “starting to see that Augusta can do what Albany has done, to really do something special.”
Albany state Sen. Winfred Dukes, an Augusta contractor on sales tax projects who knew the visitors, said Albany leadership came together to create the park.
“The secret is that the leaders came together to see what they needed to do to benefit the community,” he said. “Promoting Augusta’s most famous son is something that all the people of Augusta-Richmond County could come together to do.”