Residents praise plan for downtown canal

Residents attending Commissioner Andy Cheek's second public hearing on building a canal in downtown Augusta praised the proposal as the best idea anybody has come up with in decades.

"This is one of the most exciting proposals I ever heard of," Betty Kinsey said. "And I hope we don't do like we usually do - take 10 years and talk about it. I'd like to see it start tomorrow."

About three dozen attended the hearing on Mr. Cheek's Ellis Street Option at the Warren Road Community Center in west Augusta, and if anyone saw major flaws in the plan, they didn't say.

"I think this is a wonderful proposal, too," James Reese said. "Is there someone who's going to push this forward when you leave office?"

Mr. Cheek said he's retiring from the Augusta Commission at year's end, but he's "not going to fall off the earth" and will continue to push the proposal.

He suggested money to build the canal on Ellis Street from 12th Street to Sixth Street might be part of the next sales tax package or could come from shifting money from the judicial center project, which some say will take millions more than is now available to build.

Mr. Cheek said one of his biggest frustrations has been that so much tax money goes for jail pods. "It's time we use some of the money for ourselves," he said.

Mr. Cheek said the city has not addressed Augusta's eroding tax base in years and that a canal would bring in tourist dollars to ease property owners' burden.

He said the San Antonio canal is the top entertainment destination in Texas. And Bricktown Riverwalk in Oklahoma City turned that city around, bringing urban revitalization, condominiums, restaurants, museums and theaters.

Resident Joanne Reese asked Mr. Cheek to list some things residents could do to get the canal project pushed forward.

Mr. Cheek said they can write letters to the editor and keep it in front of the politicians.

District 7 Commissioner Jerry Brigham, who represents west Augusta, told the crowd he's not ready to make a commitment until he gets more details.

"I don't make decisions without information," he said. "I'm like everybody else. I'm trying to gather information. I've said about this it is the most innovative thinking in a long time."

But Augusta has many needs, he said.

"Sorry Andy, we're going to continue to build jails," he said. "And other things need to be completed. We started building a fire training tower 10 years ago. We're fixing to have a fire rating review. We haven't had one in 20 years."

That review could affect the fire insurance rates of everyone in the city, Mr. Brigham said.

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or sylvia.cooper@augustachronicle.com.