Merchants concerned about future of business in downtown Augusta after First Friday shooting

The shooting after this month’s First Friday was the final straw for Jonathan Karow.

After running his business in downtown Augusta for 10 years, the owner of Rock Bottom Music at 758 Broad St. said he is moving his store to a new location. He is looking at properties.

Some wonder whether downtown can survive the latest tarnish on its image, given that it already had a negative reputation among many. Several downtown merchants believe the shooting – in which six people were wounded July 6 – has already hurt their businesses.

Blue Sky Kitchen at 990 Broad St. has experienced a decline in sales, even during lunch hours, bar manager Kyla Hartley said.

“People are afraid,” she said. “I noticed a significant drop Saturday night. Usually on Saturday night, we have four servers and two cooks. We had three servers with nothing to do.”

Jai West, the owner of Casa Blanca Cafe at 936 Broad St., said her day business the Saturday after the incident was normal, but her evening business was one of the worst Saturday nights she’s had in the three years the cafe has been open.

“The people that did come in came and left before dark,” West said. “It’s put a really nice little panic in people around here, even the people that are known to come downtown. It certainly didn’t do us any good.”

More bad news came Fri­day when Fort Gordon command staff said it will consider preventing soldiers from visiting downtown Augusta during First Friday because of the shooting.

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For Karow, downtown Augusta’s negative image is a reality. He said this wasn’t his business’s first brush with violence. Several months ago, one of his employees was robbed and held at gunpoint on Ellis Street after leaving the store after sundown. He was near a police substation and behind the Richmond Summit when it happened, Karow said.

Karow said his building’s exterior sign has a bullet hole in it from several years ago. Three or four years ago, a 9 mm bullet lodged in the metal frame around the glass windows.

“A lot of stuff has happened over the past 10 years,” he said. “It’s kind of been a don’t speak, don’t tell thing between business owners not wanting to talk about it and detour people away from downtown Augusta.”

Barry White, the president and CEO of the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he wouldn’t be surprised if Augusta’s tourism business takes a hit from the incident.

“Safety is critical to Au­gusta’s success as a visitor destination,” White said. “People want to travel to places where it’s clean and safe and have a variety of things to see and do. Unfortunately, the incident could have a negative effect on our efforts to promote Augusta as a visitor destination.”

However, White said the perception is that downtown is more dangerous than it actually is.

“Unfortunately, an incident like the one that happened Friday night can reinforce that perception,” he said.

Margaret Woodard, the executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, said the shooting will be a temporary setback for downtown business. However, any business district would have seen a decline if a similar incident occurred.

She said the sheriff’s office is working on statistics that include the last time, if ever, something of this nature occurred on Broad Street and how safe downtown Augusta is compared with other areas of the county. Officials are also gathering statistics on cities of comparable size in Georgia and South Carolina.

“While this situation was unfortunate to all concerned, we must be proactive with a positive PR campaign that highlights the many incident-free events that have been held in downtown,” Woodard said. “We are working with the mayor’s office to create this PR campaign.”

Woodard said the fate of First Friday is in the “hands of the sheriff’s office and downtown merchants.”

Augusta Commission member Matt Aitken is scheduling a public meeting this week to get input from downtown businesses.

One of the challenges of First Friday is its lack of boundaries or containment, Woodard said.

The Greater Augusta Arts Council has run First Friday on a limited scale since 2007. The organization publicizes the event and organizes performances, but First Friday is in the hands of business owners, executive director Brenda Durant said.

First Friday began in 1994 as an art gallery walk designed to draw families downtown and bring shoppers to businesses. It was originally run by Main Street Au­gusta, which was funded by the Down­town Develop­ment Authority. Main Street Augusta dissolved in 2006, and the DDA ended the event for financial reasons. It was picked up by the arts council in 2007.

After the shooting, the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office said it will increase security at First Fridays and crack down on minors who are out after the city’s midnight curfew.

The event began a downward trend in 2002. Around midnight after First Friday, a large group began to fight at the corner of Broad and 11th streets. Several other fights erupted, and at least 12 people were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. A man was thrown headfirst into a window, shattering the glass.

The impact

Some downtown merchants don’t believe the most recent incident will affect their bottom line.

Barry Blackston, the owner of Nacho Mama’s and a co-owner of Still Water Taproom, hasn’t seen a decline in business.

“Most of our customers come downtown regularly,” Blackston said. “They know that was an isolated incident. It’s not something that is going to happen on any given night, so I really don’t think the majority of my customers are overly concerned.”

Benjamin Casella, a co-owner of Casella Eye Center and the president of the Downtown Augusta Alliance, said he doesn’t think the incident will affect his business, but a continued negative perception about downtown Augusta could affect merchants.

“First Friday is an event that we’ve all come to love. There’s no shortage of blame happening out there,” Casella said. “It’s becoming very en vogue to criticize the downtown community … but the fact of the matter is, a downtown area is the pulse of a community. If there’s a negative perception about downtown, there’s going to be a negative perception about the community as a whole.”

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