With local elections likely just four months away, Augusta mayoral candidates are getting busy. One of them, Augusta Commissioner Alvin Mason, has made restoring downtown access to the river a priority.
That’s point No. 2 in Mason’s “10-Point Advocacy Plan,” which calls for enhancing downtown development by dropping the 93-year-old levee by about 18 feet, to 140 feet above sea level.
Asked to elaborate, Mason said lowering about a mile of levee between 13th and Fifth streets and extending Augusta Common to the river would make Augusta’s riverfront a more accessible destination.
Currently, “all of the activities that occur on the riverfront are out of view, due to the elevation difference,” Mason said.
The proposal won’t disturb the ambiance of Riverwalk Augusta and will bring more events to the Augusta Convention Center and more visitors downtown, he said.
The idea of lowering the levee has been debated by engineers, developers and the public for years. Since 1910, the 12-mile earthen levee has protected the city against rising water levels, though there is no corresponding structure across the river in North Augusta, whose heavily developed riverfront can be seen from atop the levee.
Most supporters say the levee does little to protect Augusta’s downtown since construction of Thurmond Dam upstream in 1940 and wouldn’t save the city in a catastrophic dam failure. However, the Army Corps of Engineers, which flunked the levee in a 2011 inspection, cites the 1,700 square miles of watershed between Thurmond Dam and the city as an added level of protection.
Corps spokesman Billy Birdwell has said removing the levee will also affect flood insurance programs and alter flood maps.
Mason said he believes obtaining corps approval for lowering the levee is possible, provided the corps wasn’t asked to pay for the project.
The two-term Augusta commissioner’s platform also includes increasing south Augusta development, creating a college entertainment district and enhancing compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Mason’s rivals for mayor are Sen. Hardie Davis, D-Augusta; businessman Charles Cummings; and businesswoman Helen Blocker-Adams.
Davis’ campaign did not respond to a request for his platform, which isn’t posted online. He is forbidden by law from campaigning during his final legislative session, and he recently urged supporters to get their contributions to him by Jan. 12.
Blocker-Adams released a platform Friday that includes capitalizing on the arrival of the Army Cyber Command at Fort Gordon, reducing crime and improving education and public health.
Commissioner Mary Davis, who considered a run for mayor, said Friday that she was not running. City Administrator Fred Russell, widely rumored to be considering the post despite his firing by the commission, declined to comment on the speculation.
The election will be much earlier than usual. Typically held in November, a state law enacted by the Republican-dominated Legislature moved the nonpartisan race to the date of the general primary.
Most election observers expect the Legislature to move the date even earlier, to May 20, with qualifying the week of March 3, to coincide with federal elections and avoid the cost of additional elections.