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Mainstay merchants still waiting for downtown Augusta boom

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When Luanne Hildebrandt moved back to Augusta in 1973, there was little doubt that business thrived downtown.

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Steven Fishman, the owner of Sidney's Department Store and Uniforms, shows a shotgun to a customer. He said he isn't sure his business will still be around if revitalization ever takes place.  ZACH BOYDEN-HOLMES/STAFF
ZACH BOYDEN-HOLMES/STAFF
Steven Fishman, the owner of Sidney's Department Store and Uniforms, shows a shotgun to a customer. He said he isn't sure his business will still be around if revitalization ever takes place.

“It was the place to be,” said the owner of Hildebrant’s Food Store on Sixth Street, a family-owned grocery store dating to 1879.

But the sun set on downtown Augusta in 1978 when large department stores such as J.B. White headed to newly opened Re­gency and Augusta malls, taking customers with them.
Only a few downtown stalwarts such as Hildebrandt’s grocery stayed around waiting for a new dawn.

“I said, ‘No, I’m going to wait for it to come back downtown,’ and I have seen it come back downtown,” Hildebrandt said.

Her opinion is far from the consensus among some of the merchants that withstood a nearly abandoned downtown. Despite the creation of a business improvement district in 2008 to make downtown safer and cleaner, some longtimers disagree on whether the area is returning to better years.

Chuck Ballas Jr., the third generation to own Luigi’s Italian Restaurant on Broad Street, said the past decade has been the toughest for his business, which opened in 1949. He considered moving to Columbia County five years ago.

Luigi’s is outside the BID, a $365,000 program that runs from the Savannah River to Greene Street and Sixth to 13th streets. Property owners fund it by paying 0.00725 cents on every dollar of their property value.

Ballas’ business is down 35 percent to 40 percent from the early 1990s, a decline he attributes to the poor economy and an adult entertainment center that opened next door. Though he’s decided to keep the downtown location, Ballas thinks the area’s development could be bleak if the Augusta Commission doesn’t give more attention to downtown investment.

“How can we bring business? How can we bring people to downtown?” he asked. At some point, a limit should be placed on bar licenses issued, he said.

Johnny Finley, the owner of United Loan and Firearms at 1040 Broad St., started circa 1941, agrees that nighttime crowds at bars are hurting downtown. Though he appreciates a lunch restaurant crowd that spills over into his store, he’s not convinced downtown has bounced back.

Downtown needs more deputy patrols and cleanliness on Broad Street and the riverwalk, Finley said.

A long-lasting poor political climate hurt the business community, and Finley doesn’t think anything has changed on the commission that will make a difference when the TEE Center opens in mid-December.

MARGARET WOODARD, the executive director of the Downtown Develop­ment Authority, said not only is downtown cleaner and safer than it was five years ago, but that it’s in a prime position to have a retail boom, even attracting national stores. As an example, she points to a Walmart Neighborhood Market, which could open as early as the fall of 2013 near Walton Way and 15th Street.

She said the DDA concentrated efforts on living spaces in recent years to add to an already healthy restaurant and bar industry. She said the occupancy rate for downtown rental living space is about 99 percent, and that new projects are under way to add more living space, including renovations at 901 Broad St. and 864 Greene St.

“It is coming back,” she said. “We’re coming back full circle. People want to be part of the urban core.”

A recent analysis by The Augusta Chronicle calls that assessment into question. The 2011 analysis showed that the number of business licenses issued downtown from 2001 to 2010 dropped every year but one, falling from 499 in 2001 to 262 in 2010. The survey included addresses from Greene Street to the Savannah River from Fifth to 13th streets.

CoCo Rubio, the owner of Broad Street establishments Soul Bar and Sky City, said the DDA hasn’t proven itself to be a leader in downtown revitalization. Small business owners helped jump-start the turnaround, but now the DDA and city government need to help promote downtown as a destination, he said.

“We need to move past the idea of ‘Is downtown being revitalized?’ We’ve already done that and we are on to the next step,” Rubio said, noting that the first half of this year has been his busiest ever.

WHILE RESTAURANTS and bars are garnering some success, the market for retail stores hasn’t returned downtown, said Bonnie Ruben, the president of BR Investment group, which owns 114-year-old
Ruben’s at 914 Broad St., the Ra­mada hotel and several vacant properties.

Small stores open and close frequently because there still isn’t foot traffic to support them, Ruben said. For retail to succeed, she’d like to see an economic plan that brings small- to medium-size corporations downtown.

Woodard acknowledged that retail is “the last piece of the pie” for downtown revitalization.

According to an audit performed by the DDA in March 2011 at the request of The Augusta Chronicle, 22 percent of downtown buildings and storefronts were unoccupied. The survey covered Broad Street from Fifth to 13th streets and
the cross streets from Ellis to Rey­nolds.

Woodard argued that the survey results were not an accurate representation of revitalization. Where some storefronts are empty, the upper floors are filled with living and office space, she said.

Bill Merry, a former owner of Merry’s Trash and Treasures, founded in 1962 and at 1236 Broad St., rejects claims that downtown is problem-plagued, saying the furniture store has never had a security issue.

Some retail stores won’t considering moving despite their own questions about whether progress has hit downtown.

Fran Strickland and son-in-law Chad Bearden, owners of Furman Jewelers on Eighth Street, started circa 1952, said revitalization has been minimal at best. They’re holding out for the return of a national department or retail store to increase sidewalk traffic.

“I wouldn’t move for any reason. I would never leave downtown. This is my home,” Strickland said.

Recent years have been the toughest for Sidney’s Department Store and Uniforms in its 118-year history, said owner Steven Fishman, who started with the family business in the 1980s. He isn’t sure his business will still be around when – or if – revitalization fully takes place downtown.

“I will probably be the last to have this business,” he said. “I will probably work until I can no longer work.”

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Newsflash
1925
Points
Newsflash 05/26/12 - 10:04 pm
7
1
I dont understand why

I dont understand why downtown isnt booming. Look at Aiken's Main street.........jumping ! I guess one observation is the city leaders of Aiken seem to get along pretty well and Augusta's fight like cats and dogs or they are portrayed that way in the news.I try to go to Augusta's Broad street whenever possible and would love to see it really take off. Keeping my fingers crossed.

countyman
20610
Points
countyman 05/27/12 - 12:52 am
4
5
Downtown Aiken is alot

Downtown Aiken is alot smaller compared to Downtown Augusta too.. It's alot easier to turn things around compared to a much larger area....

Plus it depends on what you mean by 'booming''?? There's definitely more construction taking place in downtown Augusta compared to downtown Aiken..

LuvMyTown
2009
Points
LuvMyTown 05/26/12 - 11:23 pm
2
2
Stop complaining and start

Stop complaining and start investing. Why not interview folks who have invested in downtown in the last decade,

Newsflash
1925
Points
Newsflash 05/26/12 - 11:34 pm
7
1
Plus it depends of the what

Plus it depends of the what you mean by 'booming''?? I mean that the sidewalks are crowded with people from day light until way after dark and there is a very visible police presence (security) as well as many events.They also had a parade today for Memorial day and according to the news and Sen. Graham it is the largest parade of its kind in SC. I guess thats what i call booming. As far as being smaller than Augusta you are correct.........Aiken is smaller ? I love Broad street and want to open business there but honestly........I fear robbery or worse. I dont feel safe there. Maybe my fears are unfounded.....I do shop there !

countyman
20610
Points
countyman 05/27/12 - 01:28 am
2
4
Except for the streets being

Except for the streets being full of people daily from daylight to nightime... The festivals/events, and police presence are apart of downtown already... I do agree when the streets look similar to First Friday everyday then Augusta is officially back... The streets are full of people on the weekend until around 3-4am... Lower Broad street, Ellis, 9th, etc are still a work in progress.. I see police everyday downtown, but it depends on the person's view..

In terms of parades, festivals, events, etc there's no comparison between Augusta and Aiken... ESI Ironman, first friday, gay parade, hispanic festival, greek festival, westobou, arts in the heart, saturday market, sunday jazz, july 4th, us cycling championships, etc...

Well since Augusta is much bigger means there's also more homeless, diversity, and teenagers in downtown Augusta compared to Aiken.. There's larger gaps of empty storefronts, and vacant buildings.. Maybe that's were your fear might be coming from... There's been one homicide in the CBD from Jan 2010-May 2012... The person was found near the abandoned rail depot, and his family has no idea why he was there around 3am....

countyman
20610
Points
countyman 05/27/12 - 01:40 am
4
6
The chronicle needs to do a

The chronicle needs to do a follow up story... How many of those former business licenses were in buildings who have a residential component now... There's alot more people living in the CBD in 2012 compared to the the year 2000.. The number of residential developments is up in the CBD.. The Emporium used to house a business, but now it's apts/retail space..

I agree with Coco Rubio in terms of moving on to diffrent debate... The renovation of Fort Discovery, JB White condo expansion/private parking, Sprint Food & Metro Market, the large number of empty buildings that became lofts/apts, Rural Sourcing 100 IT jobs, etc show downtown is already being revitalize... In 2011 a local paper in Decatur(progressive little hip city) printed a nice article on downtown Augusta.. Those articles are usually reserved for New Orleans, Savannah, Charleston, are even smaller cities like Asheville..

GHSU/ASU will bring the needed daily foot traffic to the CBD.. Imagine the traffic on a saturday morning if you had a football stadium downtown..

omnomnom
3964
Points
omnomnom 05/27/12 - 05:32 am
9
0
a viable downtown needs more

a viable downtown needs more than restaurants and bars opening. a real grocery store would be a good start. we used to have a hardware store down there just two years ago. now its pretty much loan sharks, pawn shops, bars, restaurants, art galleries and, antique stores. not too much of anything you need everyday (except coffee or one of daves books).... give me, an ace hardware/ radio shack/ grocery store/ drugstore/ i'd be downtown every other day

blues550
380
Points
blues550 05/27/12 - 06:15 am
0
0
Wallyworld
Unpublished

Have said it many times that the CSRA does not need another Walmart. Love the place, in the Evans store more than once a week. Even the "Neighborhood" store, can't put lipstick on a pig.

Downtown needs a Trader Joe's. Eclectic and proven generator of traffic from a wide area.

JohnBrownAug
1962
Points
JohnBrownAug 05/27/12 - 08:38 am
8
2
Nobody Knows Augusta Like Bonnie Ruben

We should have elected her mayor that time she ran. She understands business downtown and has tried to hold on waiting for a comeback for decades. With her as mayor we would have actually had a hands-on person working with the nuts and bolts of city government to make it perform.

daphne3520
950
Points
daphne3520 05/27/12 - 08:52 am
4
4
Luigi's Diner
Unpublished

I was there once, 6 years ago, will not go back. NEVER seen such blatant racial discrimination ever!

justthefacts
22731
Points
justthefacts 05/27/12 - 09:13 am
2
1
Luigi's

Never miss a trip to Luigi's when I am in town. I always take my Master's guest as well. The Greek Chicken is better than anywhere I have ever had it.

JohnBrownAug
1962
Points
JohnBrownAug 05/27/12 - 10:19 am
0
0
Justthefacts

Do y'all go there after visting the other places in the area? :)

justthefacts
22731
Points
justthefacts 05/27/12 - 10:28 am
4
0
JohnBrown

Actually, some stay at the Ramada, others in houses. Most, if it is their first time, are pretty disappointed in downtown Augusta, per se. Surprised at the desolation. Being my home town, I am always slightly embarrassed. But, then, once they see ANGC, all is forgiven and they have a blast.

TK3
562
Points
TK3 05/27/12 - 10:37 am
5
0
Parking

Major downtown problem is lack of enough STREET LEVEL parking lots (parking in front of stores blocks view of same) and of course like omnomnom said, lack of daily need and dry goods stores. Cops walking a beat downtown everyday/night is expensive but needed.

marylou22
26
Points
marylou22 05/27/12 - 10:38 am
1
2
Downtown

Been downtown all of my 62 yrs lot different than when MP'S walked the street but not much differance Went from young ladies walking the street to men dressed like women to panhandlers in isolated areas but relatively safe I never feel threatened Lots of people crying with a loaf of bread under there arms no place I'd rather be as for to many restaurants and bars to me there is not enough no one comes out until 10 at night how coul that bother the other merchants For my money put the ball park down town if you whant more traffic be aware I'm a downtown merchant hope to be here 62 more yrs be thanhful for what you got quit worrying about everybody else tend to you and yours

southern2
6624
Points
southern2 05/27/12 - 12:33 pm
1
0
I have been to all of the

I have been to all of the businesses highlighted in the article. Glad we still have places that are unique, one of a kind, and back to the future, instead of being Cookie Cutter City, USA. Reminds me that it's time to pay these places a visit and enjoy some down-home Augusta flare. Furman's is one of my personal favorites.

Gage Creed
17863
Points
Gage Creed 05/27/12 - 02:55 pm
2
0
Countyman 11/20/11 "I noticed

Countyman 11/20/11 "I noticed the CBD had a total of three homicides in six years.. I find it hilarious some people still think downtown is dangerous.. Even though people similar to commissioneer Matt Aitken raise their families in the CBD"

2/27/06 Victim Ronald E. Emery
9/11/10 Victim Carl Bush Sr.
2/21/12 Victim William Scott

I imagine these 3 victims and their loved ones would not find their deaths as humorous as Countyman seems to.

dichotomy
34473
Points
dichotomy 05/27/12 - 03:36 pm
2
1
"Why not interview folks who

"Why not interview folks who have invested in downtown in the last decade"

Well, that would mostly be the taxpayers.....and mostly involuntarily.

"Mainstay merchants still waiting for downtown Augusta boom"

Yeh, we "south of Spirit Creek" are still waiting for the "pending explosive growth" that our crooked Planning and Zoning folks used as an excuse to artificially jack up our land values and property taxes 12 years ago too. Of course they immediately paid for and adopted a study that recommends they "discourage development south of Spirit Creek". So if you are waiting for smart leadership that promotes development to come from our crew of clowns you might as well step outside and pee into the wind. And out here on the southside, well....our confidence is low since we've been pee'd on for 15 years and it just keeps coming.

JohnBrownAug
1962
Points
JohnBrownAug 05/27/12 - 03:50 pm
1
0
There is a football stadium downtown

It's located close to the ASU and GHSU campuses. It's at Richmond Academy. If football returns in the distant future, that's where it will be. Practice facilities will be at the Wrightsboro Rd. complex. But it's far more likely the basketball program will go D-1 first.

Willow Bailey
20603
Points
Willow Bailey 05/27/12 - 04:45 pm
3
0
Luigi's, I've Got Your Next Location

Please come to Evans. Check out the Stonecrest location. The price should be getting really right or perhaps they would lease.

Willow Bailey
20603
Points
Willow Bailey 05/27/12 - 05:26 pm
4
0
I Play & Shop A Lot...

and I travel to shop a lot. Aiken is a favorite place for me because it is close by,but still feels like I have gotten away for the day; safe to go alone; fun, lots of eclectic, bargain and upscale shopping. Not to mention some really great places to eat and wonderful shop owners/employees. If I don't show up for awhile, I usually get a call or email from them. It's kind of like a mini Charleston experience.

I grew up shopping Broad... Whites, Belks, Davisons, Cullums, Daniels Den, Casual Hut and loved it and I would love to see it make a comeback. I'm just not comfortable with the lack of foot traffic or the people that I see on the Broad Street and there's nothing much to look at or buy. Merry's is the only shop I visit, occasionally, and it's location is such that I can park at the front door and dash in. I also like those ladies who run the little antique shop next door and usually venture that far. Cool grilling store next door as well. However, BS is not a place that I can feel free to explore, though I do wish that it were.

One of the major problems with DT, besides it's politics, is probably the size of it and the distance between each side. Most towns have much narrower streets which creates a better feel. DT is mostly about tatoos and bars; haven't developed much of a desire for either. If it is going to make any daytime comeback, it will take major retail, like a Pottery Barn, to get it there and then the boutiques, etc will be able to follow. Walmart coming to Walton Way is nice for the area, but it doesn't help BS.

JohnBrownAug
1962
Points
JohnBrownAug 05/27/12 - 06:51 pm
2
0
Hire the Aiken Development

Hire the Aiken Development people to run Augusta's program. They are successful...Augusta not so much.

JohnBrownAug
1962
Points
JohnBrownAug 05/28/12 - 02:02 pm
1
0
Some think of Augusta as being much bigger than Aiken

Some think of Augusta as being much bigger than Aiken, but the actual city population of the old city of Augusta was only 44,000 and it hasn't changed much. The city of Aiken is growing and now has 29,500 residents. The demographics are much different, however, with the per capita income being greater in Aiken among other things.

countyman
20610
Points
countyman 05/28/12 - 02:49 pm
0
0
The old city of Augsuta is

All you have to do is ride around, and see why Augusta is much larger than Aiken.. The old city of Augusta can handle alot more than 50k.. The old city of Augusta is growing too.. I bet the population has changed alot in the year 2012... They're building the first Walmart neighborhood market in the state, and other businesses along 15th street in the Medical District...

JohnBrownAug
1962
Points
JohnBrownAug 05/28/12 - 06:13 pm
1
0
Since Richmond County didn't

Since Richmond County didn't grow from census to census yet we know South Augusta had new neighborhoods built, I don't believe the old city grew. Have there been new housing projects?

kiwiinamerica
950
Points
kiwiinamerica 05/29/12 - 12:00 pm
0
0
Downtown won't regain its former glory..........
Unpublished

Sadly, it's the truth.

Firstly, why would anyone want to pound the sidewalk, going from store to store carrying purchases over several blocks in 90+ degrees, when one can shop in the air conditioned comfort of a mall where the shops are all in close proximity? That was one of the original attractions of malls, remember? It still is.

Secondly, once you get east of "Blue Sky Kitchen", downtown is a dive populated by the homeless, grifters and other deadbeats, not to mention the sleaze factor which emanates from the ......*cough*........"exotic dance clubs". This part of downtown has been claimed by life's losers. Few people feel attracted to that sort of environment.

Thirdly, Augusta's population is now dispersed out to the farthest reaches of Richmond and Columbia Counties. You better have a good reason to burn expensive gas and drive all the way in to Broad Street when there are new, clean and thriving shopping centers out in Evans and Martinez. Broad Street just doesn't give people that reason.

Just the way it is........

Iwannakno
1533
Points
Iwannakno 05/29/12 - 01:49 pm
0
0
Downtown
Unpublished

Downtown is a lot safer than it once was. I still wouldn't walk riverwalk after 11pm without a weapon. Sadly, ARC has jacked up the taxes on South Augustans to pay for things for the downtown area only. Other than the Diamond Lakes project South Augusta gas gotten squat!!

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