If businessman Brad Usry had looked into a crystal ball 25 years ago, he would have seen a different image of Riverwalk Augusta than he sees today.
Like many city residents, Usry had a romantic vision of tourists flocking to the riverside walking esplanade where they would enjoy shops and restaurants – more so than exist nearby now. The riverwalk hugging the Savannah River banks would be a popular spot, busy with activity and a contagious energy.
That vision isn’t dead, Usry says, but the riverwalk has hit many speed bumps curtailing its potential since opening on April 1, 1988. At that time, city leaders and residents took pride in the multimillion-dollar development, the brainchild of former Mayor Ed McIntyre but promoted by his successor Mayor Charles DeVaney as the cornerstone of downtown revitalization.
“We took our Savannah River and little else and turned it into a showplace. If you like what you see today, there’s a lot more to come,” DeVaney said when it opened.
The riverwalk was viewed as the first and most important step in public and private investment to tackle the problem of downtown flight, an issue since two malls had opened in the late 1970s.
A quarter-century since lighting the spark to revive downtown Augusta, Usry and others familiar with the riverwalk since its inception say it successfully laid the cornerstone DeVaney envisioned. But, the building blocks came much slower than expected.
The riverwalk was a key component of the 1982 Master Plan, a $116 million design developed by American Cities Corp., a firm hired by the revitalization think tank Augusta Tomorrow Inc. Originally called the Bay Street Esplanade, the riverwalk was one of 20 projects looked at as a solution to downtown’s demise.
Leaders jumped hurdles to make the riverwalk a reality. A congressional act was required to breach the levee separating the Savannah River from the city core, and extensive negotiations were needed to move a railroad line that ran on the south side of the levee.
Progress sped forward on the riverwalk, as the Augusta City Council approved funding for a second and third phase, opening in 1990 and 1993, respectively. When complete, the riverwalk extended from Sixth Street to 10th Street with an 1,800-seat amphitheater.
Some projects in the master plan never happened, including a recreation of Fort Augusta. Others, such as the Radisson Augusta Hotel and Conference Center – now the Augusta Marriott – and a visitor center inside the old Cotton Exchange, made a noticeable impact on riverfront development.
Port Royal, a $36 million retail and residential high-rise, was not in the original plan but became central to the redevelopment process – although shops in its upscale, first-floor mall began closing a year after opening.
Also paramount to riverfront development, but not without its own financial troubles, was the Augusta Riverfront Center, including the Radisson and Morris Museum of Art that opened in 1992.
The master plan was overly ambitious, said Dayton Sherrouse, now the director of the Augusta Canal Authority. When the riverwalk came to fruition, Sherrouse was executive vice president of Augusta Tomorrow.
“We had great expectations, perhaps, maybe unrealistic,” Sherrouse said.
Although revitalization was slow, proof of the riverwalk’s success lies on Broad Street, said Herbert Upton, the chairman of the Augusta Port Authority in the late 1980s. Broad Street bars and restaurants bustle with activity, a big difference compared to a once-abandoned downtown district.
A big stumbling block has been connecting riverfront development to downtown’s core, Sherrouse said. Streets running perpendicular to the river never saw growth that was envisioned.
Usry owned some of the first businesses that opened near the riverwalk. His restaurant, Cotton Row Cafe on Eighth Street at the levee breach, never struggled to attract customers. He also owned a gift shop and small conference center on Eighth Street.
There was a strong energy in the riverwalk’s early years, but that died off, Usry said.
As city leaders and private investors struggled to revive downtown during a weak economy, skepticism about downtown’s future was already brewing. Some contended downtown was dead and there was no bringing it back.
For a short time, the riverwalk became a center for downtown activity. The annual Arts in the Heart of Augusta was moved from Telfair Street to the riverwalk in 1993, drawing thousands to the river.
Missy DeSouza worked in the city office that planned special events at the riverwalk in the early 1990s. Despite regular concerts, boat races and family events, she said it was always difficult to get people to come to the riverwalk.
“I don’t think it ever caught on like it could have,” said DeSouza, who now lives in Concord, N.C. planning special events and fundraising for Motor Racing Outreach. “People still don’t realize what a great place it is.”
When DeSouza left the special events office for the Greater Augusta Arts Council, she watched funding drop for the riverwalk. Then, the Augusta Common opened on the 800 block between Broad and Reynolds streets in 2002, giving groups a new, preferred venue.
And eventually, the riverwalk lost the initial players who had pushed for its success. DeVaney served as mayor until Augusta’s consolidation with Richmond County on Jan. 1, 1996, another factor that some say hurt the riverwalk and downtown.
After consolidation, there was no legal body with a single focus on downtown’s core as the old city council had, Sherrouse said. No one kept their eyes on riverwalk maintenance and safety.
Upton agrees consolidation was a distraction from reviving downtown. Now, city leaders must balance attention among all areas of the county, he said.
From the beginning, the riverwalk faced problems with maintenance and safety. DeVaney added walking police patrols in 1990 in response to complaints about vandalism.
“Charles (DeVaney) was big on it being first class and being well-maintained. It had to be safe,” Upton said. “If Charles was still here, he would particularly not be happy with that.”
Most recently, two people were brutally beaten on the riverwalk on May 3 about 11 p.m. Following the attack, city leaders started formulating a plan to improveit.
The plan, not yet approved by the city commission, includes trimming trees to improve visibility at a cost of $183,000 and cleaning and repairing lightposts. Additionally, the proposal seeks to increase events and activities at the riverwalk by 50 percent beginning in 2014.
Recreation, parks and facilities director Bob Levine said his department will work with arts groups and event promoters to have street musicians, art shows and family-friendly attractions.
“The more positive activity we have down there the more it will attract people going down there to enjoy themselves,” Levine said.
Levine said the riverwalk has not been significantly neglected and the maintenance problems are similar to what other municipalities face with public parks. The riverwalk has also experienced normal effects of aging and needs upgrades, but it hasn’t gotten out of control with problems such as litter and graffiti.
“Generally speaking, I think it has been maintained at a reasonable level,” he said.
Levine said his budget includes funds for regular maintenance of the riverwalk in addition to about $20,000 special purpose local option sales tax monies. He is seeking some capital funds to eventually upgrade lighting to an energy-efficient LED system.
There’s new momentum as well along the riverfront. Momentum with the possibility to give the riverwalk a rebirth, Usry said. The expansion of the Augusta Convention Center will bring the tourists that have been lacking for decades.
“I still think the potential for Riverwalk is limitless,” Usry said. “It’s too much of an asset to just die.”
Upton said what has been lost at the riverwalk in recent years must be regained. The riverwalk and surrounding development are critical to the city’s economy and tourism.
“It’s still a good thing. It could just be better,” he said. “It’s still something we have that other cities don’t have.”