Sheriff, officials discuss fate of First Friday

Event needs organizer, sheriff says

City leaders called Monday for a group to take responsibility for First Friday or risk seeing it end as a result of last week’s shooting after the monthly downtown event.

“If no one steps up to the plate and takes charge, I feel like it should be shut down because there’s no benefit,” Sheriff Ronnie Strength said after a Monday meeting with Mayor Deke Copenhaver and several Augusta commissioners. “For it to continue, someone has to be in charge.”

Commissioners Joe Jackson and Grady Smith agreed that one of the event’s biggest obstacles is the absence of a sponsoring organization since the Downtown Development Authority gave it up in 2006.

“There’s no person right now that we as a commission can say postpone it, don’t do it anymore,” Jackson said. “People just show up now; there’s nobody putting it on.”

Friday marked the high point of violence at the downtown event, which Strength said had seen a rowdier-than-normal crowd in recent months. None of the victims was seriously injured, and the shooter remained at large Monday.

Jackson said he was surprised that juveniles were the victims of shootings after 11 p.m. because most downtown venues are not open to them at that hour, but he said a lack of police presence was not the issue.

“There were ample deputies down there,” Jackson said.

Smith contrasted First Friday with the Augusta Exchange Club Fair, where the club imposes rules on participating vendors and hires off-duty sheriff’s deputies to handle security.

“Should the taxpayers foot that bill, or should it be the downtown association, or who’s footing that bill?” Smith said. “If someone had been killed, who would have been sued?”

Still, the city shouldn’t allow criminals to end a popular event, Commissioner Bill Lockett said.

“Keep First Friday,” Lockett said. “We can’t let the criminals dictate what we do.”

A meeting planned this week with downtown business owners to decide whether they want to keep the event might be on hold because City Administrator Fred Russell and Greater Augusta Arts Council Executive Director Brenda Durant are on vacation, Commissioner Matt Aitken said.

More