With the opening of the new Augusta GreenJackets’ baseball stadium and the construction of the $200 million Riverside Village development this year, North Augusta has seen a lot of changes.
This small town by the Savannah River is attracting more new people from all over the country each and every day.
As a result, the North Augusta City Council is on the verge of making a huge decision that could drastically affect the atmosphere of this close-knit community.
Just last week, the North Augusta City Council voted, 6-1, in favor of allowing the outdoor public consumption of alcohol in defined areas surrounding Riverside Village.
The council approved the second of three readings of the proposed ordinance that would allow the public to have open containers of alcohol purchased from nearby restaurants or bars between the hours of 10 a.m. and midnight each day in a restricted area that is bordered by the Brick Pond Park, Georgia Avenue, the Savannah River and Esplanade.
The final vote on the proposed ordinance is expected to take place at 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 17.
Many longtime North Augusta residents are shocked that the proposed ordinance is one step away from becoming a reality.
“Are we really trying to be progressive? What’s progressive about this?” asked North Augusta resident David Leverett. “Why do we create so many problems for our public safety department? Why don’t we just stop (the alcohol) at the door? That’s the easiest way to maintain this. We stop it at the door. It works for everybody, everywhere.”
But North Augusta City Attorney Kelly Zier insists the city has put measures in place to properly control the consumption of alcohol in public.
“What this does is, it creates a very specific area where alcoholic beverages can be possessed and consumed in public. That area is roughly in between the baseball stadium and the (Crowne Plaza) hotel down to the river to where the road starts up the hill from the stadium,” Zier explained. “It is a very specific location, and it has some very specific requirements. One of which is that, obviously, you can’t have glass, metal cans or anything of that nature. Any beverage would have to be in a plastic or a paper cup and, in order for us to regulate it, it has to be a very specific cup approved by the city.”
The City Council has discussed requiring restaurants to have a special, color-coded cup — which could change on a daily basis — to discourage people from trying to bring their own alcohol into the designated area.
“It is intended to allow the businesses that are located right in that area, to include the hotel or any restaurants that are there, to sell a beverage that can be taken out of their facility, but can’t go anywhere beyond that very specific location,” Zier said. “For example, someone with a drink, if they were leaving the area to go to the apartments, that drink cannot be taken from that area to the apartments. Same way, you cannot bring a drink from outside of that area into that special area that is provided.”
And North Augusta officials are determined to make sure that the public follows their guidelines, he said.
“We have provisions in the ordinance that would allow the public safety director, if he chooses at any time or at any event that is going on, that he can basically restrict this or stop the consumption at any time,” Zier said. “That would be if there was a problem or maybe we had crowds that were too large.”
Despite what some North Augusta residents think, Zier pointed out that such alcohol consumption ordinances are fairly common across South Carolina.
“We have looked at similar ordinances around the state,” he said. “For example, Aiken’s designated location is in the Alley in the downtown area. And I think Rock Hill, S.C., and Greenville have these areas, too.”
However, North Augusta resident Frankie Summers was shocked to learn that these proposed designated public consumption areas in North Augusta would allow patrons of the restaurants to begin drinking at 10 a.m.
“Are you talking about doing this just for events or are you talking about every day of the week that they are going to be there from 10 a.m. to midnight bringing drinks out of the different restaurants and bars?” she asked the North Augusta City Council during its Dec. 3 meeting. “Is it all the time?”
Zier explained that the ordinance would be applicable every day, not just during special events.
“The hours are from 10 a.m. to 12, midnight,” Zier said. “And again, it’s not for people to bring beverages in. They would have to purchase the beverages from the businesses that are in that area.”
Summers was in complete disbelief that the City Council was proposing such an ordinance.
“I don’t understand how you are going to keep somebody from bringing two drinks out and handing it to somebody who is 16 years old who looks like they’re 30,” she said. “And all the people have to do is say, ‘I will take my special cup home and bring it back and I won’t have to go back in the bar and pay for a drink.’ There are many, many ways for this to get messed up.”
Summers just shook her head, saying this new ordinance doesn’t represent her town.
“Just the look of it all. It just doesn’t look like North Augusta,” she said. “The little Alley in Aiken is very short, very tiny, very narrow and very quaint. And you can’t go 5 feet in one direction or the other and get in any trouble. This is much different.”
She found it extremely disheartening that the North Augusta City Council was so close to approving this new ordinance.
“I am strongly against this,” she said. “I don’t think it is the look or the move forward that this village — and I hope that we can keep it a little bit of a village — needs to go.”
CHANGING THE FUTURE OF NORTH AUGUSTA
City Councilwoman Pat Carpenter, the lone vote against the proposed ordinance, said there is no need for open containers of alcohol in North Augusta.
“We have the best public safety in the world, but I just think we are opening a door here,” she said. “I think we are a family city. And one of the main reasons I voted for that ballpark is, families bring their children there for a big, fun time.”
If people around Riverside Village are drinking outdoors, children could be exposed to improper behavior, she said.
“You know there are going to be at least one or two people who are going to get a little tipsy, and you don’t know what is going to happen,” she said. “I am voting no, no, no on this.”
North Augusta resident Ken Powell applauded Carpenter’s stance against the ordinance.
“I don’t understand why we, as a city, feel that it is in the best interest of North Augusta to pass this ordinance. I just don’t,” he said. “Why do we feel like we have to compete with the likes of Aiken and Augusta? People in North Augusta like North Augusta. I think this would be a step in the wrong direction.”
But North Augusta City Councilman Kenneth McDowell insisted that the city has already proven it can handle the public consumption of alcohol during special events such as the extremely popular Jack-O-Lantern Jubilee in October.
“I think the Jack-O-Lantern Jubilee is a good example of how well it has been controlled and how successful it has been,” McDowell said. “And the additional safeguards here are that it can be changed, restricted, stopped and/or seized at any point going forward… by the police chief and our city administrator.”
McDowell said North Augusta should look to the future and support this option for local restaurants and businesses in Riverside Village.
“I have been to other cities where this is allowed,” he said. “I have seen it be successful, and I have not had people pour drinks on me or have drunks bump into me or anything else. Can it happen? Well, certainly it can. But a car can go barreling down through the middle of Center Street, too. Bad things can happen. I think we have to understand that.”
But McDowell said he had complete faith in North Augusta Police Chief John Thomas and his department.
“I have great confidence in our chief. I have great confidence in our police force, and I have great confidence currently in the people running these restaurants and other facilities,” he said. “They want their business to succeed, and they will have a vested interest in making sure that it does and keeping their patrons in order. So I do not have a problem with this ordinance.”
North Augusta Mayor Robert Pettit said this ordinance “needs to move forward.”
“All of these restaurants and bars have a legal obligation not to over-serve people,” he said. “So there are legal things in place to help regulate this. I think our community can handle it.”
City Councilman James Adams agreed, saying it was time for North Augusta to understand that some of the businesses moving into Riverside Village, such as the Crowne Plaza hotel, are international companies with higher expectations.
“I feel like it is something that we are going to have to try because an integral part of the restaurant business is alcohol sales,” he said. “I have some reservations about roaming the streets with an open container. But if it is going to be enforced, I think we are going to have to give it a try.”
AUGUSTA IS NOT READY FOR OPEN CONTAINERS
Many local residents were surprised to hear that North Augusta appears to moving ahead with allowing open containers of alcohol on some public streets, while the Augusta Commission decided against such a policy earlier this year.
Instead, Augusta commissioners agreed to create an entertainment district downtown that would allow for outdoor drinking, but only in small designated areas just outside bars or restaurants.
Augusta Commissioner Sean Frantom, who was the chair of a subcommittee reviewing the creation of an entertainment district, explained that the city wanted to take its time in proposing any major changes to its existing alcohol ordinance.
“When we first brought this (entertainment district) up, we talked about the open container aspect,” Frantom said. “We just felt, at this moment, Augusta kind of wasn’t ready for that. We just wanted to make sure that we started with baby steps.”
The entertainment zone subcommittee consisted of members of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, the Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Downtown Development Authority, the mayor’s office, the city administrator’s office and several downtown business owners, Frantom said.
The subcommittee met three times this year to discuss the proposal and recommend the first initiatives that should be addressed in the entertainment zone, he said.
“When we brought this committee together, which was approved by the commission, we wanted to make sure that all the stakeholders within this community were at the table,” Frantom told the Augusta Commission in late October. “We wanted to make sure that everybody had a say and gave their vision for what they thought was best.”
The defined boundaries of the downtown entertainment district include the area from the Savannah River to Greene Street and from Fifth Street to 13th Street.
This area in the newly approved entertainment zone will now have more lenient guideline in regards to the city’s noise ordinance and the outside consumption of alcoholic beverages.
Specifically, bars within the downtown entertainment zone can now allow their customers to consume alcoholic beverages on outside tables as long as there is still adequate room for pedestrians to pass and the ADA requirements for sidewalks are met, Frantom said.
Before the approval of the entertainment district, only businesses that served food were allowed to have customers drinking alcohol outside their restaurants in seated areas.
But since the Augusta Commission approved the smoking ban in local bars earlier this year, Frantom said this change will allow patrons of the bars to bring their drinks outside to nearby tables while briefly leaving the establishments to smoke.
“As we approved the smoking ordinance to go into effect on Jan. 1, we wanted to make sure that we created a synergy outside the establishments, where people could keep their drink if they wanted to smoke,” Frantom said, adding that the city plans to work with downtown businesses to make sure the public knows “where a bar’s outdoor seating ends and the sidewalk begins.”
Similar outdoor areas for bars can be found throughout Athens, Ga., Frantom said.
“We have big sidewalks in Augusta,” Frantom said. “So we felt like they would be able to accommodate it.”
But these designated areas go beyond just downtown restaurants and bars, he said.
“Some facilities like The Miller Theater — who had representatives at the table as part of the subcommittee — said they would also like to host events outside of the (Miller) sign and have some kind of fence barricades where they could have after parties or VIP parties,” he said.
Frantom thinks the new entertainment district will be able to accommodate such requests and allow enough sidewalk room for the general public, as well as remain ADA compliant.
As for the changes to the noise ordinance within the entertainment district, the hours would be amended from the current regulations of no excessive noise after 11 p.m. to moving that requirement back to midnight, he said.
In addition, the new entertainment zone will allow for food trucks to operate in designated locations on public streets during certain hours.
Before the creation of the district, food trucks were allowed only on private property, Frantom said.
“We need to allow food trucks to be on public streets, as well as giving them defined hours and defined places, because you don’t want to have food trucks in front of current restaurants,” Frantom said. “But this is one of those things that we really think could take Augusta to another level.”
After all, cities have built entire events and festivals around food trucks, Frantom said.
“One idea that was brought before us was a Tasty Tuesday event where every Tuesday in the Augusta Common we would have food trucks — self-contained food trucks — that would be able to sell food and we would promote that as a city,” Frantom said, adding that with the addition of TaxSlayer and the U.S. Army Cyber Center of Excellence to the downtown area, he thought such an idea would be a huge success. “I think this is a great way for us to create that synergy point downtown by having this event.”
The entertainment zone subcommittee plans to meet again next year to begin ironing out some of these proposals, he said.
“I think it’s kind of an open game on how we do these things,” Frantom said. “We just have got to be willing to have that conversation.”
BUILDING A STRONGER DOWNTOWN AUGUSTA
Coco Rubio, the operations manager at The Miller Theater, said he and the general manager at The Miller, Marty Elliott, have been attending the meetings regarding downtown Augusta’s entertainment district and they are pleased with what has been recommended so far.
“We gave our suggestions which were taken into account in a positive way by all involved,” Rubio said, adding they liked the idea of setting up a “controllable zone” in designated areas. “We didn’t think that having an unlimited open container law was a good idea.”
Some members of the subcommittee specifically discussed allowing open containers of alcohol to be carried by patrons up and down Broad Street, Rubio said.
“We said that was not a good idea,” Rubio said. “We thought it should be restricted to areas with clear boundaries, kind of like Arts in the Heart or an event at the Augusta Common or at the Jessye Norman Amphitheatre.”
In fact, The Miller is planning on hosting block parties around the theater next summer, he said.
“We also stressed the importance of easing up on regulations regarding food trucks, and they agreed to do that, too,” Rubio said. “So we were pleased with what has been discussed and approved so far.”
Matt Flynn of Stillwater Taproom on Broad Street said he is open to the idea of downtown Augusta looking into an open-container ordinance, especially now that North Augusta is considering a similar change.
“I think it will be good for downtown overall to allow folks to roam, drink in hand,” Flynn said. “I’m also curious to see what comes out of the bars having designated, bordered areas to drink and smoke, like Athens, I guess.”
But Eric Kinlaw, co-owner of The Bee’s Knees and The Hive on 10th Street, doesn’t support an open-container ordinance in downtown Augusta.
“I was on the committee for the entertainment district proposal, so I was part of the process, and I was there for all of the meetings. And I was one of the people who voiced concerns about allowing open containers,” Kinlaw said. “I think that is a bad idea for many reasons. For one, all the trash it would create.”
If there is no plan to handle the extra plastic cups that would be tossed away because of an open-container ordinance, such a change would create an enormous trash problem in downtown Augusta, he said.
“People treat things as they see them being treated,” Kinlaw said, adding that if trash cans are overflowing with cups, the public will just toss the cups anywhere. “And we already have a problem with trash downtown.”
Kinlaw also thinks that allowing open containers downtown would actually hurt local restaurants and bars.
“I think it encourages people to think that they can put coolers in their car and not patronage the businesses,” he said. “I don’t think it does anything to help businesses. If anything, it just gives people a way to circumvent supporting local businesses and they will use the public sidewalks and walking areas just to hang out.”
Not to mention the extra pressure that people drinking on the streets would put on the sheriff’s office, Kinlaw said.
“The police force is already stressed as it is,” he said. “With the limited resources that they have, drinking on downtown streets would make their resources even more limited.”
Public drinking on the streets also could drive regular paying customers away from downtown Augusta, he said.
“It will turn families off. I mean, I love taking my family downtown and walking around,” Kinlaw said. “But if people are walking around drunk or almost passing out, that’s even more of a reason for families not to come downtown. I think we need to encompass all things and not just make downtown a bar.”
Instead, Kinlaw said he fully supports designated areas near bars where patrons can bring their drinks outside to smoke.
“If you can’t smoke inside the bar, this way you can go sit outside on a patio out front or in the back and enjoy your drink while you’re smoking,” Kinlaw said. “That makes sense. But to walk from bar to bar with a drink in your hand, I just think causes too many problems and it’s not necessary.”
“We are not New Orleans,” Kinlaw added. “It is much different down there. That’s part of the culture there. It doesn’t need to be part of the culture here.”