Fixing First Friday

Festival needs more accountability, more leadership in wake of violence

Augusta’s monthly First Friday arts festival is looking for a new owner.

The thing is, it doesn’t seem to have one now.

In recent months, as the sheriff says, it has been “an event that nobody’s putting on.” Little surprise, then, that First Friday has gotten out of hand. Again.

A melee and mass arrests after First Friday in October 2002 led to an increased police presence and more defined activities and hours. But since then, ownership of the event has traded hands from the now-defunct Main Street Augusta to its parent, the Downtown Development Authority to the Greater Augusta Arts Council.

Ten years after the melee, the problem is still there.

After a shooting that injured six following last Friday’s event on Broad Street – none seriously, thank goodness – the community is facing the same issues as before. But with a new twist: There seems to be no go-to party to take charge or accept blame.

Brenda Durant, the arts council’s executive director, told The Chronicle Saturday that if they want to stop playing host to First Friday, business owners downtown can just close up shop and disinvite street vendors.

Of course, after Friday’s shooting, we’ll need more accountability than that.

Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength, clearly frustrated by a lack of accountability, said that the past year and a half it became clear that no one was in charge of First Friday – and he became concerned the event was sliding back toward its earlier problems. Friday, he was proved right.

Monday, he met with Mayor Deke Copenhaver and several Augusta commissioners to hash out a plan for going forward. The mayor and Commissioner Matt Aitken were tasked with meeting with downtown merchants to come up with that plan. We assume the discussions will involve the arts council.

We agree with the sheriff: There has to be an identifiable entity or person in charge, if for no other reason than to give the sheriff’s office clarity on when the thing is to be shut down. It’s supposed to end at 9 p.m., but Sheriff Strength said it hasn’t been, and vendors have been lingering to fuel the after-party on Broad.

In fairness to the arts community: The problem isn’t a bunch of Pablo Picassos rioting. The arts vendors, patrons and other businesses have a beautiful thing going. But after hours, it gets ugly.

That has led some in the downtown area to call for the end of First Friday. Bonnie Ruben and Jeff Gorelick, owners of Ruben’s Department Store and other downtown businesses, are adamant: First Friday has become a disaster.

“It’s scary. It’s beyond scary. It’s creating its own monster,” Ruben said. “It’s an out-of-control, Freaknik time bomb waiting to go off. It has imploded. The weight has brought it down on itself.”

Freaknik was an Atlanta-area festival that caused so many problems the city banished it.

Ruben said First Friday is wholesome enough, but provides Friday-night cover for troublemakers.

“First Friday gives them an excuse to come out,” she said. “There’s no way to sort them out” from law-abiding groups.

It “troubles me a lot” to give up on Friday night safety and civility, she said, but added it would be best to move the event to the daytime, perhaps on Saturdays. Gorelick concurred – after a night in which a sheriff’s deputy actually told him to hit the deck due to gunfire.

“Something has to be done about this,” he said.

“Somebody needs to take ownership” of the event, Mayor Copenhaver said. “The event going forward needs to be professionally managed.”

Canceling it won’t be up to the mayor: “How does the city pull the plug on an event we don’t sponsor?”

Ultimately, this isn’t even a First Friday problem. It’s a societal one – one that parents, schools, business leaders, churches and others need to come together to solve.

For now, the merchants will apparently have to decide what kind of festival they have, if any.

The rest of us will have to decide what kind of community we have.

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