Augusta has a ton of things going for it.
Its riverfront isn’t one of them.
That’s sad and it’s strange and it’s a rather large and visible blemish on our community.
You can use the word “disgrace” if you like.
Outside of a couple hotels, a museum, a church, a very few homey restaurants and shops and the new Augusta Convention Center, the downtown riverfront of Georgia’s second-largest city is pretty much a blighted area.
The expansive old Golf and Gardens is defunct and long gone, replaced by a usually overgrown state-owned mess oddly protected from passersby by a very ornate brick wall and stately gate – the chief function of which appears to be to prevent someone from taking a mower and shears to the place.
At the other end of downtown sits the long-idle city-owned depot and its rather extensive barren dirt patch.
In-between is a plot where a television studio used to sit, where today additional unkempt greenery is protected by a fence, albeit a cheap-looking and unsightly chain-link one.
Other than the convention center and hotels and the vibrant St. Paul’s church, there’s next to nothing going on by the river. There are acres and acres and acres of undeveloped or underdeveloped land – some of the most underutilized prime downtown riverfront land in the nation.
The lack of development and vibrancy might even contribute to crime: It’s doubtful a metal bat-wielding thug would’ve felt empowered to beat a couple senseless on the Riverwalk on May 3 if hundreds of others had been around.
There is strength in numbers, and Augusta just doesn’t have the numbers: Nationally, one could statistically expect such an urban core to have 50 percent of the greater region’s residents; Augusta’s core boasts only about 80,000 of the Metropolitan Statistical Area’s 543,738 residents, or about 15 percent of the region’s population.
If you consider the larger Central Savannah River Area as of the 2010 Census, Augusta’s core population is more like 11 percent of the whole.
Those numbers may seem vague and intangible, but a visit to other nearby cities with more thriving downtowns and waterfronts is quite real and positively shocking to the Augustan’s senses. Savannah, as well as Greenville and Charleston, S.C., have bustling waterfronts, and mountain powerhouse Asheville, N.C., likewise shames Augusta for dynamism, tourism, excitement and culture.
It’s not a poke in the eye to say such things about your hometown. It’s a kick in the rear.
“Based on the national data,” says Mayor Deke Copenhaver, “the fact that we don’t have a thriving waterfront with a mix of uses of public spaces, residential options, commercial venues and office spaces to create a critical flow of pedestrian activity is holding back our ability to take advantage of the national trends, particularly from the quality of life perspective. From a property tax and sales tax revenue perspective, it also holds back revenues which could be reinvested in things like public safety. The lost opportunity cost to the city and its citizens is huge.”
The good news is that those national trends indicate people are moving back to America’s cities, after the flight of decades past. The question is, does Augusta have its stuff together sufficiently to take advantage of that trend?
We’d better. The perception, particularly since the May 3 beating on the Riverwalk, is that the riverfront is no place to go, and certainly not after dark.
Yes, you can use the word “disgrace.”
The first step to changing all this is to pull in the same direction – not something our historically racially divided government has been able to do.
But as he prepares to leave office next year, Mayor Copenhaver is thinking more and more about Augusta’s future and his role in its history. He has created the Augusta Regional Collaboration (ARC) Project to work on such issues, and, largely with his own private fundraising, has been able to hire an executive director. The project has been promoting the idea of converting the vacant old mills along the Augusta Canal into potential classroom and living space for students at Georgia Regents University – which would bring a vitality to the area not seen since the heyday of the textile industry.
It seems to us that what’s needed on Augusta’s riverfront and nearby streets is residents; young people; artists’ havens; perhaps a state-of-the-art performing arts center; security; and restaurants and everything else that follows a herd.
For his part – and he’s a lot more scholarly on the subject – ARC’s Executive Director Matthew Kwatinetz lists these priorities among the things Augusta needs to revitalize its riverfront and downtown: “perception (most important), education (for families with children), arts/culture (for youth and empty nesters), park land, transit options, natural beauty/features, jobs, safety – all in the context of quality of life and how much it costs to live there relative to what is gained in quality of life.”
It’s not rocket science; it’s social science. And that’s a lot more down-to-earth understandable.
We know what makes for teeming waterfronts and city cores. And we can see them put into action in other cities.
It’s about time we got cracking on it right here.