Augusta leaders and members of the downtown community concluded at a gathering Wednesday that downtown is safe, but admitted that, unfortunately, perception is reality.
Augusta Commission member Corey Johnson said he was “very disturbed” by the events that taken place downtown, but “this is nowhere near as bad as it seems.”
“Let me say this for the record: Downtown is not a dangerous place,” Johnson said. “But these things happen, and it’s unfortunate they happen here.”
Speakers agreed that it’s important now to put a plan in place to protect “Augusta’s heartbeat” from crimes and a bad reputation.
About 50 people gathered on Riverwalk Augusta at a forum organized by the Downtown Augusta Alliance to get ideas on increasing safety after a series of incidents.
Just before midnight on May 2, a Beech Island man was assaulted and robbed as he left the Riverfront Pub, 531 Broad St. Police said he suffered a concussion.
Less than 24 hours later, Wesley Spires, 27, of Edgefield, S.C., and Ashley Solesbee, 25, of North Augusta, were hit with a metal bat or pipe as they sat on a bench on Riverwalk Augusta near the former Fort Discovery.
They suffered facial fractures and head wounds.
Spires remains in critical condition. Solesbee was released Monday from University Hospital.
On Monday, a video surfaced that showed a Broad Street brawl that ended in what sounded like gunfire. Police suspect the brawl occurred April 27.
Despite the cluster of incidents, police and city officials said violent crime downtown is rare.
“Downtown is a safe area,” Commissioner Bill Fennoy said. “I think when incidents like this happen it is sensationalized in the press. We have $50 million to $70 million invested in Reynolds Street. We don’t want the message outside of Augusta to be a message that downtown is not a safe place, a place you can’t bring your family.”
The commission is discussing putting cameras downtown as a deterrent.
Richmond County sheriff’s Chief Deputy Patrick Clayton said the sheriff plans to meet with City Administrator Fred Russell to discuss increasing patrols downtown.
Clayton said Russell is trying to find money to do that and to improve lighting.
The sheriff’s office is also planning to increase the presence of its bicycle patrol. The two bike officers patrol downtown during the day, but he hopes to extend it into the night.
In the meantime, the office is trying to shift resources to better cover downtown.
Johnson expressed the importance of reaching out to the city’s youths to show that violent behavior won’t be tolerated.
Former Commissioner Andy Cheek, who was in the crowd, expressed concern about the effectiveness of cameras on the riverwalk, an area with lots of trees.
He said he was also concerned about the length of time it would take to install them.
“We need boots on the ground immediately,” he said.
He presented the idea of putting plain-clothes “invisible” officers on the street.
Fennoy responded by saying he didn’t think it would be a good idea for Sheriff Richard Roundtree to announce his plans publicly.
“I’m quite sure we have a sheriff that will listen to the demands of the people and will address the issues,” he said.
Fennoy said he plans to work with downtown property owners to offer a reward and to have a fundraiser for the victims of last week’s crime.