Turning downtown around

It seems like every time you turn around, some consultant is doing some study about some aspect of Augusta.

One of those studies came across our desk not too long ago. Here are some excerpts from it:

- "Downtown Augusta shares with other central city business districts myriad problems of age, functional obsolescence, traffic congestion, parking and a general lack of amenities."

- "Shopping downtown has become a burden and a bore."

- "As long as the railroad remains, downtown Augusta will find it difficult (if not impossible) to project an image of a modern, up-to-date shopping district capable of competing with new regional centers in the suburbs."

- "All of the problems cited above combine to create additional major problems for the downtown. Foremost among these is the growing number of vacancies in downtown stores and shops ... ."

All of those observations are absolutely true.

And all of those observations were made about Augusta more than 40 years ago .

The study we just quoted is from 1968, titled "Downtown Augusta: A plan for expansion and revitalization of the central area of Augusta, Georgia." So don't confuse it with the downtown master plan that was unveiled this past February.

Nor should you confuse it with the 1982 plan vigorously advocated by a then-nascent Augusta Tomorrow.

Nor should you confuse it with the 1995 re-tweaking of the 1982 plan.

In 1968 Augusta officials and business owners grappled with many of the same problems the city faces now.

By the late 1960s, downtown Augusta was in decline -- and this was way before Augusta and Regency malls opened in 1978. As the city grew residentially away from the river, merchants closed up shop on Broad Street and followed the growth. People had fewer reasons to come downtown anymore.

And the people who did come downtown had to cope with the ridiculous inconvenience of active railroads. The passing trains that stalled traffic for our grandparents are stalling us still today.

Then there's parking. A story on traffic woes in The Augusta Chronicle from 1969 cited complaints about angled parking in a traffic committee study -- done in 1952 .

Let that sink in for a minute: Augusta parking downtown has posed problems for at least more than a half-century.

So what does that say about Augusta's progress? Has there actually been any?

Yes and no.

With master plans and urban development, you're playing a long game. In most cases it's not a magic bullet. It's more of a long treatment toward a cure.

We mentioned the 1982 master plan. Developers were still chipping away at that project list in the mid-1990s. And it yielded results -- Riverwalk Augusta, the Jessye Norman Amphitheater, a renovated Lamar Building and a riverfront hotel and convention center, among others.

But the same problems persist. The empty storefronts. The traffic.

And other projects never materialized. Plans for an office plaza included the demolition of the Imperial Theatre. Another proposal called for a full-scale re-creation of the original 18th-century Fort Augusta, as a living-history exhibit.

But that's another aspect of downtown master plans. Fixing a city isn't like fixing a car. A city isn't static. It changes. Its people change and their needs change. So the plan changes.

But one thing never changes: It takes a united will to make such plans work. Government can make most anything happen, but citizens have to buy into it for a plan to truly succeed. The much-anticipated Kroc Center is a splendid example of what can be done if a community unites.

A new year is less than a couple of weeks away. A new Augusta Commission will be seated that many hope will inject positive change into the city. New statistics show Augusta's resilience -- bending but not breaking under the weight of a weakening economy.

Could 2010 be the year that downtown turns around?

The master plan unveiled in February is an excellent jumping-off point. If public and private hands pitch in together based on that, the designers' conceptions of Augusta's future can come to life, instead of staying on paper as they did in 1968.

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