Top stories of 2013: Downtown aims to rebound

Attack prompted call for change at Riverwalk Augusta

 It was a rough year for downtown Augusta, but things could be looking up.

Concerns about safety in the city’s third most popular tourist destination reached a frenzy after the May 3 beating of a young South Carolina couple enjoying a moonlit night at Riverwalk Augusta.

The baseball bat attack left Wesley Spires and Ashley Solesbee with serious head and facial injuries, and Spires had to undergo weeks of rehabilitation before he was released home to Edge­field, S.C.

Six months later, Spires said he was “all healed up” and hadn’t turned away from downtown Augusta, while the couple, on their third date May 3, remains together. The attack suspects are in jail awaiting trial.

The attack spurred a call for improvements at the riverwalk, which adjoins the Augusta Con­vention Center. The riverwalk was observed by Augusta Com­mission members to be in disrepair, including overgrown shrubbery and trees and numerous broken lights.

The attack also triggered Sher­iff Richard Roundtree’s effort to increase security downtown, particularly on First Friday nights, which attract the most visitors.

Roundtree, who had already committed six bicycle, foot or motor deputies downtown, proposed installing security cameras and creating a new Con­tin­uously Patrolled District to fund even more dedicated patrols using a special downtown tax. The proposal failed to win support from property owners, and Roundtree recently said he did not expect sufficient support to implement the program.

As the sheriff and city recreation department searched for funds to repair the riverwalk and enhance security downtown, the area took another hit with City Admin­is­trator Fred Russell’s proposal to designate the 600-acre downtown Central Business District as a “slum” to borrow money at reduced rates.

Commissioners, who learned of the proposal when it appeared on a meeting agenda, immediately questioned the plan and whether the area truly had the health hazards, dilapidation and other characteristics cited in documents prepared by special bond counsel Jim Plunkett.

“I wouldn’t describe it as a slum,” Commissioner Bill Fennoy said in September.

Some commissioners cited not being kept informed about the “slum” proposal and other large city projects as reasons for their votes to fire Russell on Dec. 9.

Earlier this month, the commission approved a scaled-back version of the plan that avoids the disparaging language and limits the district to the Municipal Building complex, the former main library, a city-owned riverfront railroad depot, James Brown Arena, Bell Audi­torium and Port Royal, the riverfront high-rise condominium complex.

Adopting the plan allows the city to issue up to $28.5 million in tax-exempt bonds to fund renovations and a new Information Technology building at the 530 Greene St. government complex.

Augusta’s Downtown De­velop­ment Authority, largely silent during the year’s downtown news, emerged as an active player when the commission voted Dec. 17 to work with the authority and the Augusta Regional Colla­bo­ration Project on financing “Discovery Plaza” to retain 400 unnamed Augusta jobs at Port Royal and increasing security at the riverwalk.

The commission also approved a new Tax Allocation District downtown to divert new property taxes resulting from development back into the area, including to help fund a renovated Holiday Inn Express reopening soon in the 400 block of Broad Street.

The downtown authority, which lost its Clean Augusta Downtown Initia­tive this year after property owners complained about the service’s extra taxes, will receive a management fee from the Discovery Pla­za project, according to a resolution of support.

The authority, which rejected an Augusta Rec­re­ation Department request for funds to prune trees on the riverwalk, cited larger, sales-tax funded future ambitions. The group also undertook a survey of downtown’s retail needs in 2013.

Finally, a new face in downtown development surfaced at community and government meetings this year. Matthew Kwatinetz, who arrived with a team involved in Starbucks’ decision to locate a soluble products plant in Augusta, was named by Mayor Deke Co­pen­haver as head of the ARC Project.

The ARC Project, funded so far through donations from Starbucks and city funds, moved into the former Me­tro Augusta Chamber of Com­merce building in the median in the 600 block of Broad Street. Kwatinetz said he’s leading an effort to renovate the architecturally unique structure into a jazz cafe, arts, business incubation and meeting space.

Downtown Development Authority denies Riverwalk Augusta tree pruning request
Riverwalk Augusta improvement plan yet to reach fruition
2 plead not guilty in Riverwalk Augusta attack
Marriott chief opposes sheriff's downtown crime district
Downtown Augusta area ranks third-highest in violent crime reports
Augusta Commission discusses 'slum' designation options
Plan to label downtown Augusta a 'slum' draws criticism
Committee OKs downtown 'slum' designation
Officials seek to designate downtown a "slum"
Charges in downtown Augusta beatings will go to grand jury
Riverwalk mugging suspect identified
ABOUT THE SERIES

SATURDAY: The merger of Georgia Health Sciences and Augusta State universities became official in 2013, but not without its share of controversies.

SUNDAY: A federal judge ended the Richmond County school system’s desegregation order after 40 years.

MONDAY: Five members of Evans-based vein procedures company The Vein Guys, including co-founder Steven Roth, were killed in a Feb. 20 plane crash at Thomson-McDuffie County Airport.

TUESDAY: The Richmond County Sheriff’s Office wanted to address traffic concerns in 2013 with Operation Thunder, and it did, to the chagrin of many motorists.

WEDNESDAY: The city’s transition to once-a-week garbage, recycling and yard waste collection did not go smoothly.

THURSDAY: After a dozen years in the making, the Augusta Convention Center opened in February.

TODAY: Safety concerns after high-profile assaults and a proposed slum designation catapulted downtown Augusta back into the spotlight in 2013.

DEC. 28: Delays in consultations led to the deaths of three cancer patients at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center.

DEC. 29: North Augusta officials approved a $144 million public-private development that would include a baseball stadium for the Augusta GreenJackets.

DEC. 30: Rain played
havoc with farmers,
event planners and
others in record-setting fashion.

DEC. 31: After a year of discontent over his performance, Augusta Commission members
fired longtime city Administrator Fred Russell in December.

TOPIC PAGE: Downtown safety

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