Along with the typical activities of peering down Magnolia Lane or visiting downtown’s James Brown statue, city leaders are hoping to add one more hotspot to the schedules of tourists visiting Augusta: The Laney-Walker and Bethlehem neighborhoods.
Engineers are in the planning phase of developing a Heritage Trail to wind through the two neighborhoods that could showcase historic sites for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists. The trail is part of a multimillion-dollar revitalization of the area that began in 2009 devoted to razing dilapidated structures, building new housing, creating green space and other efforts.
On Monday, architects, engineers and other players helping develop the trail presented four possible designs and asked for public input.
“When a visitor brand new to Augusta comes to visit, what are the lessons, what are the insights you want them to glean?” asked Bobby Donaldson, an associate history professor at University of South Carolina who is working on the project.
Donaldson said the goal is to help tourists and locals gain knowledge of the prominent, and lesser known, African American businesses and leaders who shaped the neighborhoods decades ago.
Thomas Robertson, the president of Cranston Engineering Group, said 288 sites have been identified as being candidates for the trail, but consultants must narrow down the list to make a walkable or drivable route.
Robertson said the project does not yet have a projected cost or timeline for completion. Consultants are now drawing feedback from the community about which sites they’d like to see included and how the trail should be designed before a final proposal is presented Aug. 11.
W.E. Lofton, 70, who grew up on Clay Street, said the revitalization project is much needed to address dilapidated and condemned homes that often attract crime or make the neighborhoods less desirable for newcomers.
According to a city news release, the revitalization project has so far razed 95 dilapidated structures, purchased 273 lots, created 6.4 acres of green space and has built or begun constructing 70 new housing units.
The project is using $7.3 million of local bond funds along with $6 million of private investment.
Lofton said the historic preservation aspect is also key because the neighborhoods have the birth homes of various civil rights and community leaders as well as the sites of African American businesses, schools and community centers that helped shape the city.
“It will benefit generations to come so they know the impact, the heritage of people here,” Lofton said.
The four plans presented Monday all take different approaches on how to incorporate attractions into a digestible trail. One would intersect the Heritage Trail into surrounding attractions, such as the canal system or Riverwalk Augusta.
Another incorporates loops and parks to make it more walkable with less sites.
Robertson said nothing is in stone, and the final recommendation could be a blend of all four designs.
Joyce Law, a member of the project’s steering committee, said the trail is important to remind the community of the efforts of business people, civil rights leaders, educators and other activists that may be forgotten today.
She said some may not realize the neighborhoods were once thriving and that certain sites played important roles in the foundation of Augusta.
She said it’s time to help bring a sense of pride back to the area and boost the economic potential of the neighborhoods.
“That’s part of the brain drain of youth today,” she said. “They see nothing in a certain place, so they assume nothing was ever there and nothing will ever be there. They don’t see the potential or the history. It’s important we go back, so they can see the greatness.”