Originally created 10/05/03

First Friday works to overcome violence



What a difference a year makes.

One year ago this weekend, every available sheriff's deputy in Richmond County was called downtown to respond to an outbreak of violence on the streets, hours after Augusta's monthly First Friday festival had ended.

By the end of that October night, officers had to spray Mace to disperse a crowd of fighting people. The glass window fronts of two Broad Street businesses - Louie J's and Metro A Coffeehouse - were broken. And 19 arrests were made for disorderly conduct.

That was then.

Last month, twice as many arrests were made during and after the First Friday festival. Offenses included drunken driving, loud music from vehicles and possession of weapons and drugs.

On Friday night, police reported no problems associated with the First Friday festival and said the crowd was smaller than last month. Police made a handful of arrests downtown in the early hours of Saturday morning, most alcohol-related.

Those recent festivals were counted as successes, not catastrophes.

What has changed?

The answer depends on whom you ask.

"The word has gotten out that we're not going to tolerate any type of unlawfulness," said Sgt. Scott Gay, the supervisor of the downtown police patrols during First Friday.

"We have a controlled environment," said Chris Naylor, the executive director of Main Street Augusta.

"They're going through a learning process," said George Mutimer, the Augusta-area agent in charge of alcohol and tobacco enforcement for the Georgia Department of Revenue.

"It's more like what First Friday was first set up to be," said Beverly Huff, the owner of Antique Emporium on Broad Street.

A lot more than perceptions and opinion has changed about First Friday, however, especially in the past few months.

Those changes include:

  • The adoption of an open-container law, which makes it illegal to drink alcohol on any public street or sidewalk
  • The enforcement of a long-forgotten city ordinance restricting downtown bar owners from distributing "to-go" cups for alcohol
  • The regular presence of dozens of Richmond County sheriff's deputies during the festival and after it ends at 10 p.m.
  • The prohibition and, this month, the reintroduction of amplified bands to downtown streets during the festival.
  • The result has been more arrests, but stakeholders say the spinoff has been more order downtown.

    THE HOURS after the October 2002 First Friday were, by all accounts, a downtown's merchant's worst nightmare: uncontrollable crowds; property damage; and an image of violence and fear that would dog downtown for the next year, driving away the young families and couples that downtown merchants had started working to attract nearly a decade ago.

    In November, local officials assigned 150 Richmond County sheriff's officers to patrol downtown streets. Sidewalk vendors were yanked from their spots. Bands were uninvited.

    And the walkways outside Broad Street businesses were almost barren, with merchants reporting dramatically lower profits than during past festivals.

    In a way, First Friday has never recovered completely from the street violence that erupted a year ago.

    Crowd estimates from a year ago topped 10,000 people, according to Mr. Naylor. Recent First Fridays have drawn between 4,000 and 6,000.

    Although fewer people are attending, the demographics are more to the liking of downtown merchants.

    "More families are coming out," Ms. Huff of Antique Emporium said last week. And that's helping her do more business, she said, explaining that her sales doubled, when compared with a regular night, during last month's festival. She expected sales to increase this month.

    "It's just at the tip of growth," she said, adding that the festival is just "waiting to burst" with more business.

    ALTHOUGH THE FESTIVAL is attracting more families, fewer young adults - those in the "under 25" crowd - are showing up. Since the October 2002 First Friday, amplified bands have been banned from the festival.

    This month, those musical groups made their first reappearance in a year, although they were confined to two side streets - Eighth and 10th. The move was opposed by the primary downtown merchants association, Main Street Augusta, but it is expected to help expand the younger attendance again.

    "There should be music at First Friday," said Eric Kinlaw, the owner of the Bee's Knees restaurant and a local musician. He is one of several downtown business owners who worked to bring amplified bands back downtown.

    "It was music and the arts (to begin with), and then, when they wanted to ... cut it out, (First Friday) lost a lot of the spirit it had before," Mr. Kinlaw said. "We're just trying to bring that back."

    Though the fight to get amplified bands back on the street was successful, the musical allowance comes with a catch: Officials say more rules are on the way, likely before the year is through.

    A downtown stakeholders group is researching noise ordinances from other cities, and a new law that regulates the decibel level of bands is expected to be proposed in coming months.

    That, Mr. Kinlaw said, is unfortunate.

    "Somebody wants to correlate electric bands with the problems that happened last year, and they have no relation whatsoever," he said. "We're not asking to have a band on every corner. We're asking to have a few on side streets.

    "They don't quite get it."

    WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING

    The Augusta Chronicle went to Broad Street and asked patrons and business and property owners to look at the past year of First Fridays and talk about how it's changed.  View the picture story to see how they answered:

    Staff writers Preston Sparks and Tim Cox contributed to this article.

    Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215 or heidi.williams@augustachronicle.com.



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