August’s First Friday was widely regarded by organizers, visitors and business owners as better coordinated and safer, thanks to a clear show of force from the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office.
Working from a mobile command center at Sixth and Broad streets, sheriff’s deputies could be seen consistently along Broad Street from Fifth to 13th Street. Almost every corner had two or three police cars parked throughout the evening. The fire department and Gold Cross EMS also parked people and vehicles downtown.
The event went on without any major incidents, but authorities said rain kept the crowds from gathering as they had in previous months. Lightning started around 8:30 p.m., and the rain followed about an hour later, when First Friday was officially over.
“We wish this was a sign of how First Friday was going to be from now on,” sheriff’s Capt. Scott Gay said. “But the weather had a huge impact on the crowds being minimal.”
After the July event, a shooting on Broad Street injured six people, prompting discussions about downtown security. While some people called for an end to the event, a task force consisting of city officials and headed by City Administrator Fred Russell recommended more police officers, tighter vendor control and improved cleanup efforts.
Starting this month, city officials made the License and Inspection department responsible for unlicensed vendors. Director Rob Sherman and Augusta’s Planning and Development Director George Patty said they asked at least four unlicensed vendors to pack up by 7:30 p.m.
Margaret Woodard, the executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, said that there appeared to be fewer vendors but more people.
Vern Brown, of Atlanta, sold artwork Friday night on the corner of Broad and 10th streets, as he has every month for five years. He said the shooting incident didn’t keep him from returning.
Art gallery and restaurant owners said the crowd was similar to or larger than crowds in past months.
“Everyone seems to be in a really good spirit. I, for one, am really happy to be here,” said Allison May, who helps the owner of Art on Broad every First Friday. “Clearly, a lot of people feel the same way.”
Jai West, the owner of Casa Blanca, said her restaurant, which usually fills up by 7:30 p.m. on First Friday, was full by 5:30.
“Finally, after such a long time, people are paying attention to First Friday. It’s great for it to start being run the way it should be,” West said.
Two Clean Augusta Downtown Initiative employees were walking Broad Street, and two more were on bicycle and Segway patrolling the Augusta Common, the Jessye Norman Amphitheater and Springfield Park, Woodard said.
The Westobou Festival steering committee, the Friends With Benefits Fund and downtown business owner CoCo Rubio held an event that began at 5 p.m. on Augusta Common with music, food and non-alcoholic drinks. At 8 p.m., a ticketed concert was held at the Jessye Norman Amphitheater featuring local bands Funk You, Stewart and Winfield, and the headliner, Bloodkin. Organizers expected about 1,000 people but admitted the rain could have kept people away.
Friends Laura Perry and Lisa Durst braved the weather to support First Friday.
“(First Friday) is a good thing we have in Augusta,” Perry said. “Don’t let bad things drive you away. Let’s keep it going.”
Sheneika and Robert Lofton, of North Augusta, attended First Friday for the first time in five years. The couple ate dinner at Soy Noodle House on Broad Street, listened to a seven-piece brass band and planned to visit vendors.
“I’m glad the city chose to fight for this to keep it going. It’d be a shame for this not to happen because of a few bad people,” Sheneika Lofton said.