Can Ellis Street be transformed into a San Antonio-like Riverwalk?

Augusta Commissioner Andy Cheek's proposal to turn Ellis Street into a canal is pie in the sky to some in Augusta and a fantastic idea to others.

But to Mr. Cheek, who presented the "Ellis Street Option" to commissioners at last week's meeting, water flowing from the Augusta Canal at 12th Street down Ellis from 13th to Sixth Street would be an economic boon, bringing tourists and tourist dollars to the Garden City.

"It would be the thread that binds the package together," he said. "The new baseball stadium, the Golf Hall of Fame gardens, the TEE center, Artists Row and the canal would all be within walking distance in downtown Augusta."

Mr. Cheek envisions new restaurants popping up all over town and tourists on canal-boat rides spending money hand over fist in hotels, restaurants, gift shops and art galleries.

"Real estate would skyrocket," he said. "We would increase the tax base through sales taxes, the hotel-motel tax. It would be a win-win situation that would pay for itself in a short period."

And just how much would that be?

Mr. Cheek estimates $27 million to $47 million.

"I'm basing my costs on the Atlanta Gas Light cleanup," he said, referring to the environmental reclamation project on Eighth Street south of Walton Way.

While Mr. Cheek's commission colleagues received the presentation as information and most said it sounded good, some were skeptical.

"It sounded like a good project," Commissioner Calvin Holland said. "We've got a lot of other things we could be working on. It's going to take a lot of time. It's going to take a lot of money."

Commissioner Don Grantham called the proposal "interesting."

"It's like I said, 'When you've got a vision, put it out there,'" he said. "But once we start digging up Ellis Street, how much damage are we going to do to the foundations of those buildings? I don't know that that's been thought about."

Mr. Grantham said commissioners need to consider implementing Mr. Cheek's plan at the present location of the Augusta Canal because the proposed new judicial center and other developments are going into the area around James Brown Boulevard and Walton Way.

"It would be less expensive and, hopefully, just as effective," Mr. Grantham said. "It's an interesting concept. We have a resource that should be utilized better than it is."

Commissioner Marion Williams said the Ellis Street Option is an example of thinking outside the box, but it won't work.

"They won't be able to get water down Ellis Street," he said. "Your great-great-great-granddaughter would never see that."

Mr. Williams said commissioners who wanted Mr. Cheek to vote for the new trade, event and exhibition center on Reynolds Street next to the Marriott Hotel & Suites were pretending to support the proposal.

"They've got Andy bourgeoisied," he said. "They kinda fed Andy along. Andy is in an imaginary world. I think they were saying to him that could be done. He will never see that - not in Augusta. We don't even have a 27-story building, and you're going to see water running down the street?"

Mr. Cheek said Mr. Williams' allegation was "absolute baloney."

"The economic benefit of this plan for other cities, San Antonio, Texas, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, has been proven," he said. "As for as commissioners pulling the wool over my eyes, they just responded to what they think is a good idea. I think Marion needs to plug back into reality."

Even more critical of the proposal was Bonnie Ruben, the owner of the Ramada Plaza Hotel and Ruben's Department Store on Broad Street.

"I don't think you just dig up a street and put a canal someplace," she said.

"Really, I don't hardly even know what to say about something this off-the-wall. I mean, I think it's completely off-the-wall. Why don't we have a space station above Broad Street, and we could beam Andy Cheek right up to the space station? Why don't we launch rocket tours downtown from Ellis Street?"

Ms. Ruben asked whether anybody knows how much the project would cost and what the side effects would be.

She said Augusta would be better off if city leaders put their efforts into finding tenants for vacant downtown buildings, redeveloping property and creating economic incentives for people who want to come downtown and do business and open new stores.

"We need to make it easy for people to move into Augusta downtown and open business, not to make it difficult," she said. "Our efforts ought to be geared to making downtown user-friendly, which it isn't."

Mr. Cheek is not deterred by the naysayers.

"If you look at the economic benefits, it would be worth the fight," he said. "Even Mr. (Henry) Cummings when he decided to expand the canal in the 1800s and attracted 40-some-odd industries had to fight then, too. There's always going to be a group of people against anything, and that's worth fighting for. It's changed the face of San Antonio and Oklahoma City."

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or sylvia.cooper@augustachronicle.com.

WHAT THEY'RE SAYING ABOUT THE ELLIS STREET PROPOSAL

"The picture looks very nice. I can imagine the involvement and difficulties in trying to transfer Ellis Street into a canal which would affect all businesses on both sides of Ellis, as well as those on Broad Street that extend through the block to Ellis. It lends itself to expense, time and involvement with displacing infrastructure and an important thoroughfare through downtown Augusta."

- Jack Connell, the owner of Sandwich City at 10th and Ellis streets

"You can put a pretty picture to anything, but that doesn't mean it's feasible or doable. There are a lot of other things I think you'd have to do first, and this is a pie-in-the-sky kind of crazy thing. And I think whoever is proposing this is purely nuts."

- Bonnie Ruben, owner of the Ramada Plaza hotel and Ruben's Department Store on Broad Street

"I just don't think it's doable. Too much money. Too much infrastructure. Got to move the sewers, the power, the storm sewers. And what are you going to do with this place (Sandwich City on Ellis Street)? How are people going to come in and out?"

- Jeff Coffey, a controls technician for Gold Mech

"I think if it would benefit the downtown area and bring in more business and generate more tax dollars, it would be a plus. I also think the TEE center would be even better. We don't have any places for a car show."

- Fred Munns, a vendor for car shows and memorabilia

"He's trying so hard to do something heroic, but we've got so many things we need to do."

- Commissioner Jimmy Smith

"We're going to have to start doing something of that nature. It's something worthwhile looking into. I'm not going to shoot it down. I think it's seriously worth taking a look at, the Ellis Street project. It's going to take time."

- Commissioner Bernard Harper

"I think it's something that needs to be looked at and studied to determine the cost and then decide what needs to happen. Then after we know what it's going to cost, we've got to decide where we're going to get the money to do it. It's different."

- Commissioner Jerry Brigham

"It's getting some traction. Andy is getting a lot of phone calls. He's going to have some more meetings to get some public comment. Fixing the canal up is good. There are some challenges with Ellis Street, though."

- City Administrator Fred Russell

"I think that's probably one of the best ideas I have ever seen for Augusta, Ga., and by far the best idea for increasing tourism in downtown Augusta. I'm flabbergasted at the presentation. I was skeptical at first, but after seeing his presentation, it could be the best thing to happen to downtown Augusta. I've received the calls from people as far away as Columbia, S.C., and St. Simons Island, Ga., from canoeists and kayakers interested in our project because there's nothing in this region that compares to what Andy has presented."

- Commissioner Joe Bowles

"I think there's some merit in using the natural water we have, but for us to dig up Ellis Street is pie in the sky. If it happens, how much liability does that create for the city? Furthermore, how much is it going to cost? It's more like $74 million instead of $24 million like he's talking about. I don't know where he went to engineering school, but gee, it's going to cost a lot of money to do that. Twenty-four million is not going to scratch the surface."

- Dave Barbee, 10th District Republican Party representative

"I think the concept is marvelous. I have no idea what the cost would be or anything. But the general concept or anything like that to improve downtown Augusta would be fabulous."

- Nick Shaw, stockbroker and resident of River Place at Port Royal

"I think it's a great idea. I don't think it will ever happen - not in Augusta, Ga. It would make Augusta very pretty. I just don't think I see our commission agreeing on it, or they would start working on it and then run out of money and stop."

- Maria Shackleford, manager of Mail Central on Ellis Street

"I think it looks great. I don't know how it could be done. It will be difficult to do. The cost would be my concern."

- Ray Brown, a contractor from North Augusta