Originally created 06/07/06

Officials discuss concerns over trouble after event



"Official" First Fridays aren't the problem.

It's the unofficial loitering that occurs after the event that has downtown business leaders and the Richmond County Sheriff's Office concerned.

The downtown street bazaar celebrated on the first Friday of every month is largely a family-oriented affair with vendors and entertainment from 5-10 p.m. But crowds remain loitering on the street until the early morning hours, long after the four to six deputies hired for the event end their shifts.

On Tuesday, a small gathering of downtown business leaders met with Sheriff Ronnie Strength to start the first of what is expected to be several discussions.

"First Friday needs some restructuring," said Lara Plocha, executive director of the Imperial Theater and chairwoman of Main Street Augusta's First Friday committee. "This is the first of several meetings with stakeholders to get an action plan."

She said many business owners view the monthly event as a boon to downtown commerce.

"Some (bar) owners say First Friday makes their month," Ms. Plocha said.

But underage youths who don't frequent the bars, restaurants and art galleries - and instead loiter on the streets - clog traffic and sometimes cause fights. Sheriff Strength said the crowds often prompt deputies to return to the area after 10 p.m.

"We've got more important things to do," the sheriff said during the meeting at Metro: A Coffeehouse & Pub, which was near the epicenter of a major First Friday disturbance in October 2002 at Broad and 11th streets that resulted in increased security at the event.

That fracas, which involved mostly young men, resulted in a man being thrown through a window at Metro. First Friday backers have been trying to overcome the blemish on the event ever since.

An outbreak of violence remains on the minds of some downtown business owners.

"I'm not trying to be a negative soul, but this has happened and it is fixing to happen again," said Johnny Finley, owner of United Loan & Firearms.

The First Friday committee, which is comprised of volunteers, will likely meet next with County Administrator Fred Russell to discuss solutions, Ms. Plocha said.

First Friday is funded partly by vendors fees but mostly by Main Street Augusta money provided through the Downtown Development Authority. About half of Main Street's $20,400 budget is used for insurance, security and entertainment for First Friday. Once safety issues are resolved, the second step will be to make First Friday self-sufficient, authority Executive Director Margaret Woodard said.

Reach Tony Lombardo at (706) 823-3227 or tony.lombardo@augustachronicle.com.

POTENTIAL CHANGES


Though no definite plans were made at Tuesday's First Friday meeting, the committee fielded several suggestions, including:


- Better defining First Friday hours. Many people have the perception First Friday lasts all night, Sheriff Ronnie Strength said.


- Forcing vendors and bands to disperse after 10 p.m.


- Closing entire blocks on Broad Street to prevent people from cruising the streets.