Gunfire that marred last year’s Fourth of July celebration at Riverwalk Augusta has prompted a handful of changes heading into this year’s festivities, with city officials and and city officials and downtown business owners saying it remains an isolated event that shouldn’t scare visitors away.
At least three people were injured, including alleged shooter Clinton L. Coleman, after an argument between him and another person resulted in gunfire.
The shooting shattered a window at the new riverfront headquarters of government security contractor Unisys Corp. and sent thousands scampering, many of them families with children, around 10 p.m. as the Monday night show ended.
But there’s too much happening in downtown Augusta to allow the isolated incident to stoke fears, one downtown shopkeeper said.
“There’s so much going on; I would hate to let a single event, one bad situation change what has become a great tradition,” said Millie Huff of Artsy Me Downtown, the Broad Street pottery studio. “If you let fear from keeping you from supporting something that’s supposed to be family-friendly, you’re letting the bad guys win.”
Police have tweaked their approach to this year’s Fourth of July celebration, said Richmond County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Steve Strickland, who called the 2016 gunfire “an anomaly and an isolated event.”
The department is adding officers – both uniformed and a plain-clothed contingent – to observe and mingle with the crowd, while other officers will work inevitable traffic snarls on the downtown grid, he said.
Riverwalk and the surrounding area are open from all sides. An idea briefly considered last year of restricting access to certain points is simply cost-prohibitive, Strickland said.
Despite the incident, organizers aren’t expecting it to impact the 50,000-plus turnout on either side of the Savannah River, and boaters who gather in the river, for the half-hour show, Deputy Augusta Recreation Director Joni Adams said. Festivities begin 4 p.m. at Augusta Common, and a VIP viewing area at the city Boathouse opens at 6 p.m., she said.
There is no designated parking for the event, and this year the six-acre gravel lot in the 500 block of Reynolds Street just below the Fifth Street bridge will be reserved for viewing the show, not parking, Adams said.
Some who were downtown when the shooting started last year are still leery about downtown safety.
“At night, no, even if it’s still a lot of people,” said Deja Fludd, an Augusta Technical College student. Fludd and classmate Tabitha Rexrode said they feared being approached by sometimes “rowdy” visitors from nearby neighborhoods after dark downtown.
An official with Unisys Corp., which is part of a downtown business boom that will be boosted by the incoming riverfront Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center, said the company is undaunted by last year’s incident.
“We believe last year was a fluke that unfortunately happened in front of our building,” site Executive Director Dale Dye said.
Unisys has added additional security as a result of the shooting and continues to enhance security for its staff and everyone in the area, Dye said.
But the company is so confident in the safety at the site it’s hosting a Fourth of July celebration for employees during the fireworks show.
“As a way to show our vote of confidence, we are actually having a Fourth of July event on the balcony,” Dye said.
Coleman is the only person charged in the shooting . A third shooter who was allegedly Coleman’s target and fled the scene, officers said last year, was never identified.
“We were not able to determine that there was a third guy,” sheriff’s Maj. Calvin Chew said.
The Augusta Commission and mayor have since taken an active role in ensuring the city Recreation department got aging trees, overgrown vegetation and broken lighting at Riverwalk under control to help with safety.
“We’ve cut the bushes down and cut the shrubbery back to make it clearer and lighter,” Commissioner Marion Williams said.
Last year’s shooting prompted some commissioners to call for construction of a sheriff’s office substation inside the Unisys building, which has available space. City Central Services Director Takiyah Douse said the substation is expected to be complete in about 60 days.
Reach Susan McCord at (706) 823-3215 or firstname.lastname@example.org.