Originally created 12/08/00

Downtown renaissance



Five years ago, the bar scene in Augusta was centered on Washington Road, and much of downtown was a forgotten strip of abandoned storefronts and struggling businesses.

But things are different now.

On Broad and Ellis streets, on the five blocks between Seventh and 12th streets, reside no fewer than 10 bars, six of which have opened in the past year. And that doesn't count the sundry cafes and restaurants with bars or the establishments that pepper Riverwalk Augusta.

Scott Levine, who opened The Playground with his wife, Dee, in February, said that the recent crop of bars that has sprouted might well be the first sign of a larger downtown harvest.

"No matter what people believe, when you have a barren downtown, revitalization starts with bars," he said. "If you have bars, then restaurants will follow. If you have restaurants, then small shops will follow, and then places to live and schools will follow."

It is a sentiment shared by other bar owners along the emerging night-life strip. Although they readily admit that lower rents and unusual spaces attracted them to downtown, they say that the opportunity to take part in the area's renaissance also played a part in their move to Broad Street.

"It was, financially speaking, more feasible to open up down here," said Kenny Morrison from behind the long bar at Metro A Coffeehouse. "It was much cheaper to open here than out on the west side somewhere. But it was more than that. We found that our target market was beginning to hang out down here, and we really wanted to be part of the rejuvenation that was going on."

The result has been a bar scene that seems more driven by a sense of community than competition. Fliers in windows promote not only events at that location but at other downtown bars as well.

Mrs. Levine said it is that sense of family that has helped the downtown bars survive and thrive.

"We feel like we need to welcome new bars to the neighborhood," she said. "When we started, people opened their doors to us, let us behind their bars. I think we're obligated to do the same."

CoCo Rubio, recognized as the unofficial patriarch of the downtown bar scene, opened the Soul Bar in an abandoned pawn shop in 1995, when Broad Street had all but bottomed out after the mall revolution. He said that now that downtown has a wide variety of bar choices it will be interesting to see who survives.

"I think it is time to sit back and see what happens, to see how this rides out," he said. "I have to wonder if Augusta will support this all or if there are too many bars. I'm afraid that if they don't work, people might have the impression that downtown is not ready to come back. Right now, I think the impression is that the area is really booming. The reality, however, is probably somewhere in between. We're at a point right now where a few key decisions by the government can make a real difference."

Recent tribulations for bar owners include a controversy over outdoor seating and advertising, a skirmish with the congregation of Curtis Baptist Church over the granting of a liquor license and a proposed increase in licensing fees. Another obstacle many bars have to overcome is public perception.

"I think a lot of people have a bad taste in their mouth when they hear the word bar or cocktail lounge," Mr. Morrison said. "But I think as long as proprietors and employees are responsible, we can keep things under control as far as safety issues go. I think downtown we've done that very well."

Mr. Rubio said he wants people to continue to come downtown and hopes they leave with a new respect for the diversity it offers.

"Maybe they'll come down here and notice the art, or maybe they'll notice the music, or maybe they'll just notice the mix of people," he said. "I'd just like for them to feel that vibe we have down here and feel good about being in Augusta."

Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or suhles@hotmail.com.