When Planned Parenthood closed its doors on Broad Street in downtown Augusta in February 2016, several local churches and pro-life groups celebrated.
In fact, the Augusta Care Pregnancy Center located right across the street from the former Planned Parenthood location announced its prayers had been answered.
“For 35 years, Augusta Care Pregnancy Center has prayed that Augusta Planned Parenthood would close,” Susan Swanson, the owner of Augusta Care Pregnancy Center, said last year. “Thousands of pregnant mothers have been wounded, some physically and some mentally. God has answered many prayers of the Augusta people.”
But, just last week, some of those same protestors who opposed Planned Parenthood’s presence in downtown Augusta were appalled by the fact that a new bar called The Scene plans to move into the former clinic’s location at 1289 Broad Street.
They insist that the former Planned Parenthood building should not be used as a bar, but as a memorial for the “little human beings” who were aborted there.
“We are blessed in this city that Augusta Planned Parenthood closed one year ago on Feb. 29. That day, a dark cloud was lifted from downtown,” Swanson said. “I have spent 33 years of my life watching the tragedy of abortion at Planned Parenthood. Thousands of women were hurt there and approximately 60,000 babies died there. We must remember that building is their grave.”
“The idea of a bar going in it really grieves many people because they understand that a bar is likely to perpetuate the same behaviors, like drugs, prostitution and human trafficking that closing Planned Parenthood helped prevent.”
While the new owners of The Scene have not publicly discussed their plans for the bar, the Augusta Commission and members of the city’s planning and development department insist that the local government has no right to prohibit a bar from opening at the former Planned Parenthood location.
“It is roughly 150 feet from the intersection of Broad Street and 13th Street,” said Rob Sherman, deputy director of the city’s planning and development department. “The property is zoned B-2, general business and the location meets the distance requirements.”
Therefore, the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office and the planning and development department recommended to the Augusta Commission this month that the license be approved with one condition: the main entrance of the new bar must be facing Jones Street instead of the main thoroughfare of Broad Street.
“When we were talking about the distance requirements, (The Scene) meets the distance requirements to the church,” Sherman said, referring to Curtis Baptist Church located across the street and a block over at 1348 Broad Street. “To get the distance, you measure out the front door to the sidewalk, down the sidewalk, across the street and down to the front door of the church. That distance is 740 feet. And 300 feet is what’s required by the city.”
However, The Scene must also meet the distance requirements associated with a school since Curtis Baptist also has a private school at its Broad Street location.
“The school is on the far side of the property away from where this proposed establishment is going,” Sherman said. “So, for an on-premise, liquor, beer and wine license, as it relates to a school — for beer and wine it is 100 yards, still 300 feet — but for liquor, it is 200 yards or 600 feet.”
Sherman explained that The Scene plans to offer liquor, as well as beer and wine at its location. Therefore, it needed to meet the distance requirement of 600 feet from Curtis Baptist’s school.
“The walking distance from this location to the school building is roughly 850 feet, so it more than meets the distance,” Sherman said. “But what the ordinance also says is it must be 200 yards — or 100 yards for beer and wine — to the building or the property.”
The ordinance’s wording of “property” is what made this alcohol license application a little bit trickier, Sherman said.
“The way we have looked at that in the past is, if there is a school building further away from the establishment, but, let’s say, a playground is in between, we measure to the playground,” Sherman said. “In this case, there is a little more of a twist because it is the church and the school all on the same property. So which is the school ground and which is the church ground?”
In order to err on the side of caution, Sherman said the city decided to view all of Curtis Baptist’s property as school grounds.
“What we did was, we looked at it in the most restrictive way and said that all of it is school property,” Sherman said. “Now, I don’t know that all of those buildings that are between the sanctuary and this corner that I am talking about, whether they are used for the school or for the church. But we are saying that it is being used for the school. So, what that meant was that we had to measure from the proposed establishment to the very closest corner of the property. That is where we had a problem. It came out to 450 feet.”
Therefore, if the owners of The Scene want a full bar that serves liquor, they could not have the bar’s main entrance on Broad Street, Sherman said.
“So, we got in touch with the alcohol applicant and their property is a through lot, so the building has frontage on both Jones Street and Broad Street,” Sherman said. “They have a driveway in the front on Broad and two driveways in the back on Jones Street and the parking lot is in the back on Jones. So the owner said he had even considered putting the front door at the Jones Street location. And I said, ‘Well, that’s what you will need to do to make this work.’”
While Robyn Jarrett applied for the alcohol license for The Scene and is listed as its manager, the owners of the proposed bar are William Jarrett, Michael Wilby and Edward Goode, according to the application for the license.
Some of the owners did attend the public hearings regarding the bar’s alcohol application, but they did not publicly address the commission or the objectors to the license during the meetings.
Instead, Sherman answered all of the questions involving the application.
“It meets all of the code requirements,” Sherman told the Augusta Commission on March 7. “(The owner) has to do alterations to the building and he is going to put the front door on the backside in order to meet the distance requirements. That is a condition of this license being approved: the front door has to go on the Jones Street side.”
Eva Edl, a local pro-life advocate and resident of Aiken, S.C., strongly objected to the alcohol application at the former Planned Parenthood location.
She stood before the Augusta Commission and explained that when she was 9 years old, her native country of Yugoslavia was overtaken during World War II.
As a result, her family was separated from one another and they forced to live in one of Europe’s concentration camps in 1945.
“I am a survivor of a World War II death camp. And I see this issue of granting a liquor license to the old Planned Parenthood building in that prospective,” Edl said. “If you think about it, Planned Parenthood or any other abortion clinic in our country is no different than the death camps of Europe, except that the victims are much smaller.”
Edl provided members of the Augusta Commission photos of some fetuses.
“I ask you, would you permit a bar and a dance floor to be established in the gas chambers of Auschwitz?” Edl asked the commission, referring to the German Nazi concentration camp.
“It is unthinkable, isn’t it? Now consider Planned Parenthood of Augusta. More than 60,000 babies, little human beings were killed there. I used to stand out front and beg women to give life to their babies. I offered to adopt them. Whatever it took.”
The day that Planned Parenthood of Augusta closed its doors, Edl said she was exhilarated. But when she learned that a bar planned to open in its former location, she was horrified.
“Don’t desecrate the blood of those babies by establishing a bar and a dance floor on it,” Edl begged the Augusta commissioners. “It is no different than establishing a dance floor or a bar in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany. I just want to ask you gentlemen and lady, all of us will some day stand before the judgment throne of Jesus Christ and give account of what we do. Consider what he will say to you about this decision you are making. This building can be used for the good of humanity.”
She suggested that local churches band together and attempt to purchase the former Planned Parenthood location.
“If our local churches would just work together, we could have a counseling center for post-abortion women whose lives are being destroyed because of their regret,” she said. “A healing place. We could have a small memorial there where a woman could come and give a name to her baby and find closure. We could use it for so many good things. So please give your liquor license to another building, but not the old Planned Parenthood.”
Mayor Pro Tem Mary Davis thanked Edl for her passionate remarks, but she explained that the Augusta Commission must treat every alcohol applicant fairly by following the city’s established ordinances.
“The commission up here, we have to hear applications for liquor licenses in new buildings and those kinds of zoning issues weekly and we base them on the guidelines that we have and the regulations that we have,” Davis said.
“We have to follow the laws of what we’ve set up as a county. We appreciate so much of your emotion and I feel the same as far as what has happened in that building, but we can’t prevent someone from buying that building and then opening up according to and following all of the regulations, rules and laws that we have.”
While Davis said she understood Edl’s desire for local churches to purchase the former Planned Parenthood building, she pointed out that there hadn’t been any action taken regarding that proposal.
“I don’t know if there was ever an effort from the church to purchase that building before, but what we are being brought to us today is a different owner,” Davis said. “And they are following the guidelines that have been approved by our planning and zoning and our sheriff’s office, so we have to follow our own rules and regulations.”
However, Edl wasn’t the only person objecting to the alcohol license.
More than a dozen people from Curtis Baptist Church and the local community attended the recent meetings regarding The Scene’s alcohol license.
They insisted that The Scene would only hurt downtown Augusta by opening in the former Planned Parenthood location.
“I have a question for the Augusta commissioners,” said Swanson of the Augusta Care Pregnancy Center, who also has been a member of Curtis Baptist Church for 44 years. “What is the type of city that we — the taxpayers and citizens — want in Augusta? I would say, as most church pastors would say, that we want a healthy city for young people and families. Our young men and women are the future leaders of the community, but our example sends a message of how they should conduct their lives. Alcohol and drugs have been found to be a destructive force in families and children.”
She insisted that downtown Augusta doesn’t need another alcohol license approved near Curtis Baptist Church.
“I’ve worked in this field for 33 years and watched it. Alcoholism leads to family violence, to child abuse, sexual and physical abuse,” Swanson said. “If you ask any social worker, that’s what they will tell you. These events in a child’s life often follow the family for generations. I believe, too, that Augusta’s main roots that hurt our community are addictions and abuse. We should want better for our city.”
Swanson also scolded the commission for not making the distance requirements even greater than 600 feet for a bar’s location to a school.
“That is very sad for the children that go to Curtis Baptist School,” she said. “We have to decide, do we respect our houses of worship or not? I think that sends a message to the Augusta people.”
There needs to be more to downtown Augusta than just bars, Swanson said.
“I know it is all about tourism,” she said. “I hear that all the time: tourism and money. But there is a point we have to want a healthy city. Not a broken city.”
She also offered the commission a quote from The Bible.
“Proverbs 20-21 says, ‘Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise,’” she said.
Augusta Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle thanked Swanson for her comments, but insisted that the city can’t arbitrarily pick and choose who can have an alcohol license and who cannot if the applicant meets all the necessary requirements.
“You asked the commissioners what we expect of the city of Augusta,” Guilfoyle said to Swanson. “We want to see it grow. We want to see it prosper. We try to be consistent in all of our decisions and votes on this floor. We ask the people who come before us to be consistent as well. The reason why I am saying that is, fortunately, there is no longer an abortion clinic right there on Broad Street, but if we are going to be consistent, if you are going to shoot down one (alcohol application), shoot them all down.”
“One of those liquor licenses is four blocks down from where this building is, but not a word was spoken,” Guilfoyle said to the audience. “Where was y’all at for the other three agenda items?”
Being fair and consistent matters when you are leading a city, Guilfoyle said.
“So, what do we want? We want to see Augusta grow together,” Guilfoyle said.
“But there are going to be decisions we make on this floor that don’t appease some but appease others. We just have to be consistent.”
However, Gary Garner, a pro-life supporter and resident of south Augusta, told the commission that his main concern was the location of this requested alcohol license, rather than the granting of The Scene’s license in general.
“I came upon 1289 Broad Street in 1985 with Planned Parenthood being in the process of killing a couple of thousand babies a year,” Garner said. “I haven’t ever been able to leave the place along with hundreds and even thousands of people coming and standing in front of this very evil place. I’ve been there probably 2,000 times over the last 30 years. That’s equivalent to about 3,000 hours. If we will kill our babies, there is nothing that we won’t do in life. Killing babies is the absolute worst.”
For him, the death of those babies is what 1289 Broad Street will always signifies, Garner said.
“You probably don’t know this, but Augusta, Georgia is a killing field in the state of Georgia,” Garner said. “Not only have there been 65,000 babies been killed at 1289 Broad Street in the last 38 years, but another 20,000 at Preferred Health on the westside of town, which we are still standing against.”
The Augusta Commission needs to acknowledge what happened for more than 35 years at 1289 Broad Street, he said.
“There are some things in life that are far more important than making money,” he said. “And the sacredness and sanctity of life is one of those…
If we turn this death house into an entertainment center, we write it off like the babies have no memory at all. If we could not give the babies life, we could at least give them a memory. They deserve that.”
The only reasonable use for that building is a memorial for the lives lost inside of it, he said.
“It is not about these people looking to put this particular business in that building,” Garner said pointing to The Scene’s owners. “It is about anybody choosing to put a commercial business into that particular building. That building is demonized and has been for all these years.”
Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams, who is also the pastor of Friendship Baptist Church, said he understood the objectors’ strong feelings about the former Planned Parenthood location. However, he explained that if the commission denied the license, it would most likely end up costing the city thousands and thousands of dollars in legal fees fighting the owners in court.
And, in the end, the bar would still be able to open, he said.
“I understand what the congregation and the people are saying,” Williams said. “But we have got to look at it in two fashions: First of all, the law is set up such as it is. Be it right or wrong.”
“This applicant meets all of the guidelines that we have put in place. Even though we may not agree with it, I think we are almost forced to go ahead and approve this application because if we don’t, we end up setting ourselves up for a larger arena in a court of law somewhere.”
Specifically, Williams recalled the city’s legal fight against X-Mart, the adult video store on Gordon Highway.
The city spent more than $130,000 in legal fees trying to keep the adult video store from opening in Augusta.
After eight years of battling X-Mart in court, the Augusta Commission finally agreed to pay $550,000 to Augusta Video in order to settle the lawsuit.
“I understand better than most what the objectors are saying, but I am reminded of, not in this current chamber, but the other chamber when folks filled it up because an adult bookstore wanted to come to Augusta and open up on Gordon Highway,” Williams said. “We had the chamber completely filled up with people against the bookstore. The commission at that time did not support it. But it cost this city an astronomical amount of money because we had to follow the law. Not just this county’s laws, but state law.”
As the Augusta Commission unanimously approved The Scene’s alcohol license on March 7, Williams told the audience that the commissioners really didn’t have a choice.
“We are bound by law. We take an oath,” Williams said. “I understand your situation. I do sympathize, but I have got to follow the law to make sure that, not just your church, but other areas won’t have to pay through this government for not following that law.”
Voting against a bar’s alcohol license just because the building was previously a Planned Parenthood location won’t accomplish anything, he said.
“If it didn’t meet the guidelines or if it wasn’t in order, then I don’t think anybody up here would even think about supporting it,” Williams said. “But, the facts are, it meets the guidelines.”