Originally created 07/17/04

Owners seek ways to avoid robberies



Last September, police arrested a man after he robbed the One-Hour Cleanerizing business on Ellis Street.

The same downtown business was targeted by robbers in November and twice this year.

While Richmond County sheriff's authorities were successful in arresting suspects in the cases, the incidents are part of what some business owners consider a rash of robberies, burglaries and thefts occurring at downtown Augusta shops in the past 10 months.

David Cochran and his wife, Debbie, manage their family-owned One-Hour Cleanerizing business in the 800 block of Ellis Street. They believe police are doing their best but say more law enforcement could be a crime deterrent.

"It's frustrating," Mr. Cochran said. "But who do you fault?"

"The sheriff's department is doing the best they can. But can they check roofs?" he asked, noting that his and other businesses have been victimized by robbers entering through rooftops and ceilings.

In the heart of downtown at Eighth and Broad streets, the SunTrust building stands as one of the city's tallest corporate buildings. Last month, the ninth-floor office where Gwen Fulcher Young runs a real estate broker business was hit by thieves who entered by removing a hall ceiling.

"It proves you can't be totally secure anywhere," she said, adding that since the incident, she no longer works at her office at night.

"Fortunately," she said, "no one was hurt. You feel violated when someone has been in your office and have gone through your things."

Thieves stole her laptop computer, food from a snack bar and car keys, she said.

Another business on the second floor of the SunTrust building was ransacked the same day, with robbers again stealing laptops, Mrs. Young said.

In the past six months, robbers also have targeted Regions Bank and Wachovia Bank, both on Seventh and Broad streets. Thefts have occurred at Broad Street businesses including The Augusta Chronicle, Imperial Theatre and Pizza Joint, in addition to law firms on Greene and Telfair streets.

Thieves also recently ransacked offices at a child support agency inside the New South Building at Reynolds and Bay streets. Office equipment was stolen, and a vending change machine was robbed at the four-story office facility.

Richmond County sheriff's Maj. Kenneth Autry said law enforcement has beefed up downtown patrols with more deputies walking beats, riding bicycles and mules - the golf-cart vehicles.

The added police presence is paying safety dividends.

On July 1, deputies arrested Clifton Willingham, 27, who police say tried to pawn guns believed stolen from a consignment shop behind One-Hour Cleanerizing.

But the rising criminal activity has not adversely impacted many of the business owners' zeal for staying the downtown course.

Although Mrs. Cochran admits being frustrated at times, she and her husband have no plans to move their shop.

"We're Augusta natives and we believe in downtown," she said. "We want to see it grow. That's why we're still here."

Because their Ellis Street shop is "off the beaten path," Mrs. Cochran said, she hopes the sheriff's office will consider increasing weekend and nighttime patrols in the area.

The Cochrans have invested in a new video monitoring system that connects with security and sheriff's personnel when an alarm occurs.

Chris Naylor, the executive director of the Downtown Development Authority and Main Street Augusta, said the Cochrans have the right approach.

"Property owners need to secure their businesses," he said.

In a meeting with Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength, Mr. Naylor said his group has addressed crime concerns and police are doing their best by looking out for potential problems.

"I don't think anyone should have any reservations about settling downtown," said Mr. Naylor, whose organizations are proponents for continuing the city's downtown revitalization.

Mrs. Young agrees with Mr. Naylor.

"Things like this (crime) can happen anywhere. It has nothing to do with downtown. We have thriving businesses and I feel downtown is very safe," she said.

Reach Timothy Cox at (706) 823-3217 or tim.cox@augustachronicle.com