It was a rough year for downtown Augusta, but things could be looking up.
Concerns about safety in the city’s third most popular tourist destination reached a frenzy after the May 3 beating of a young South Carolina couple enjoying a moonlit night at Riverwalk Augusta.
The baseball bat attack left Wesley Spires and Ashley Solesbee with serious head and facial injuries, and Spires had to undergo weeks of rehabilitation before he was released home to Edgefield, S.C.
Six months later, Spires said he was “all healed up” and hadn’t turned away from downtown Augusta, while the couple, on their third date May 3, remains together. The attack suspects are in jail awaiting trial.
The attack spurred a call for improvements at the riverwalk, which adjoins the Augusta Convention Center. The riverwalk was observed by Augusta Commission members to be in disrepair, including overgrown shrubbery and trees and numerous broken lights.
The attack also triggered Sheriff Richard Roundtree’s effort to increase security downtown, particularly on First Friday nights, which attract the most visitors.
Roundtree, who had already committed six bicycle, foot or motor deputies downtown, proposed installing security cameras and creating a new Continuously Patrolled District to fund even more dedicated patrols using a special downtown tax. The proposal failed to win support from property owners, and Roundtree recently said he did not expect sufficient support to implement the program.
As the sheriff and city recreation department searched for funds to repair the riverwalk and enhance security downtown, the area took another hit with City Administrator Fred Russell’s proposal to designate the 600-acre downtown Central Business District as a “slum” to borrow money at reduced rates.
Commissioners, who learned of the proposal when it appeared on a meeting agenda, immediately questioned the plan and whether the area truly had the health hazards, dilapidation and other characteristics cited in documents prepared by special bond counsel Jim Plunkett.
“I wouldn’t describe it as a slum,” Commissioner Bill Fennoy said in September.
Some commissioners cited not being kept informed about the “slum” proposal and other large city projects as reasons for their votes to fire Russell on Dec. 9.
Earlier this month, the commission approved a scaled-back version of the plan that avoids the disparaging language and limits the district to the Municipal Building complex, the former main library, a city-owned riverfront railroad depot, James Brown Arena, Bell Auditorium and Port Royal, the riverfront high-rise condominium complex.
Adopting the plan allows the city to issue up to $28.5 million in tax-exempt bonds to fund renovations and a new Information Technology building at the 530 Greene St. government complex.
Augusta’s Downtown Development Authority, largely silent during the year’s downtown news, emerged as an active player when the commission voted Dec. 17 to work with the authority and the Augusta Regional Collaboration Project on financing “Discovery Plaza” to retain 400 unnamed Augusta jobs at Port Royal and increasing security at the riverwalk.
The commission also approved a new Tax Allocation District downtown to divert new property taxes resulting from development back into the area, including to help fund a renovated Holiday Inn Express reopening soon in the 400 block of Broad Street.
The downtown authority, which lost its Clean Augusta Downtown Initiative this year after property owners complained about the service’s extra taxes, will receive a management fee from the Discovery Plaza project, according to a resolution of support.
The authority, which rejected an Augusta Recreation Department request for funds to prune trees on the riverwalk, cited larger, sales-tax funded future ambitions. The group also undertook a survey of downtown’s retail needs in 2013.
Finally, a new face in downtown development surfaced at community and government meetings this year. Matthew Kwatinetz, who arrived with a team involved in Starbucks’ decision to locate a soluble products plant in Augusta, was named by Mayor Deke Copenhaver as head of the ARC Project.
The ARC Project, funded so far through donations from Starbucks and city funds, moved into the former Metro Augusta Chamber of Commerce building in the median in the 600 block of Broad Street. Kwatinetz said he’s leading an effort to renovate the architecturally unique structure into a jazz cafe, arts, business incubation and meeting space.