In two informal meetings Monday on the future of First Friday, ideas ranged from Mayor Deke Copenhaver’s offering to dig into his wallet to help pay for security to a longtime downtown business owner pitching a plan for two First Fridays – one for families and a late-night event for adults.
Margaret Woodard, the executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, said an official public meeting about the monthly festival will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Augusta-Richmond County Public Library on Telfair Street
Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength said he has been asked to be there and plans to present crime numbers about downtown.
“Downtown is not crime-ridden,” he said.
City Administrator Fred Russell, District 1 Augusta Commission member Matt Aitken and Copenhaver plan to attend also, Woodard said.
Discussed in the meeting in Copenhaver’s office Monday morning were ideas on how to get positive PR about downtown and a way to fund more security for First Friday. Six people were wounded in a shooting after this month’s festival.
“People started to reach out to me last week to do something positive,” Woodard said. “We wanted to create a positive campaign for downtown.”
Downtown business owners, including Coco Rubio, the owner of Sky City and The Soul Bar, and Caren Bricker, the owner of Vintage Ooollee, talked about how to address the negative image of downtown after the July 6 shootings. Copenhaver said it was just a preliminary meeting in which concerns and ideas were discussed informally.
“(Monday morning’s) discussions were about how we need to quit pointing fingers,” Woodard said. “What are we going to do to move forward?”
The need for security was also addressed at the meeting. Woodard said most people in the meeting agreed to donate their own money, including Copenhaver, who offered to give $5,000. He will also work with the Community Foundation to raise money.
“If money is a challenge, let’s raise it,” Woodard said.
Rubio’s plan, which he also told at an evening meeting at the Ramada Plaza Hotel on Broad Street, would split First Friday into two events, one from 6-10 p.m., focusing on family activities and the arts at Augusta Common. At 10 p.m., police would be brought in on foot and a strict under-21 curfew would be enforced.
“It could be an entertainment district,” he said.
Rubio conceded that money would be needed to pay for security. He said the earlier meeting proved that business owners are willing to put up their own money but said they shouldn’t have to. The Clean Augusta Downtown Initiative program is funded through a tax levied only on for-profit property owners within the business improvement district. He said it is a program he will most likely not vote for again, so that money can be used to pay for deputies.
At the evening meeting, more than a dozen business owners and politicians spoke. Most favored keeping First Friday.
“You have my vow not to shut down First Friday,” Commissioner Joe Bowles said.
Commissioner Bill Lockett agreed.
“We don’t let the criminals take over,” he said. “We gain back control.”