It is the road project no one in Augusta really wants to discuss.
Many nearby residents are either too nervous or intimidated to talk about it.
Surrounding business owners worry about the repercussions from speaking out.
The city is talking about it, but only when citizens specifically ask.
And, as for Augusta National, well, it never really publicly discusses anything, does it?
But, the fact is, Berckmans Road is about to change forever.
In about a month, the city will begin the two-year process to partially realign and widen Berckmans Road from Washington Road to Wheeler Road.
The current section of Berckmans Road from the corner of Washington Road next to Jay’s Music & Sound Super Center all the way to the edge of Augusta National’s property near Towne Club Condominiums will eventually be closed.
That entire stretch of Berckmans Road will no longer exist. It will be turned over to Augusta National and become the golf club’s private property.
Instead, a new section of Berckmans Road will be realigned just north of Wicklow Drive and run through existing property that is primarily owned by Augusta National to connect with Washington Road at Alexander Drive.
While a lot of residents living around Berckmans Road realize change is coming, many homeowners say they have no idea what to truly expect.
“We’ve been here for about 15 years and we raised five children in this home,” said Mechone Williams, who lives with her husband and family in a house just off Wicklow Drive. “We were drawn to this neighborhood because of the energy. It’s a very quiet, nice, clean neighborhood that was a safe place to raise children. But, with this road project, it scares me. It leads me to believe that our neighborhood will become a major thoroughfare for traffic. I worry everything is about to change.”
Even these days, Williams says there are many drivers who frequently ignore some of the three-way stops in the neighborhood.
“So I can only imagine what could possibly happen if the traffic is increased,” she said. “It is not a matter of ‘if,’ it is just a matter of ‘when.’ It terrifies me.”
Fortunately, Williams said she currently doesn’t have any very young children in the house, but she knows there are still many small children in the neighborhood.
“We have had five kids over the years ride their bikes, play football and walk down the street to their friends’ houses, but this road project will put an end to all of that,” Williams said. “It is just going to strip us of what we thought we were buying into for a long period of time. That is not what we signed up for.”
Williams is far from alone in her concerns over the impact the Berckmans Road project may have on her neighborhood.
Benjamin Isaac, who lives with his family on Wicklow Drive, said he had absolutely no idea that a realignment project of Berckmans Road had even been proposed, much less that it was scheduled to begin around the first week of May.
“We actually knew nothing about the widening project,” Isaac said, in disbelief. “It seems like the people involved with Augusta National and its property do a lot of that stuff behind our backs. It is almost like we have to go out and seek the information. They are not very forthcoming, to say the least.”
Not one piece of mail, official notice or city flier has reached his front door about the road project, Isaac insisted.
“I’m fairly aware of what goes on when something is put in my mailbox or if I’m notified of something and they rarely ever let us know anything,” he said. “We are just here and we just have to deal with whatever they decide to do. Same thing with the parking situation. Same thing with Augusta National buying up all of the property in the former neighborhood across the street from them. They just do what they want to and the neighborhood residents just have to deal with it.”
When 26-year-old Theresa Howell was told that the road project was scheduled to begin in May, she immediately stopped working in the yard and quickly walked inside a house off Wicklow Drive.
Minutes later, she returned with her 82-year-old grandmother, who owns the home.
“We had no idea,” Howell said, explaining that she actually lives in an apartment off Washington Road, but tries to help out her grandmother when she has some spare time. “I don’t even know where to begin. Where is the new Berckmans Road going to cross? Is my grandmother’s house going to be landlocked? How long is it going to take to be completed? Why are we just now hearing about it and, no offense, but from a reporter?”
Howell was provided the city’s official fact sheet about the Berckmans Road project that is available on the Augusta government’s website at augustaga.gov/1599/Berckmans-Road-Project.
Under the heading, “Project Purpose” the city’s fact sheet provides the following explanation:
The purpose of the project is to widen Berckmans Road from Wheeler Road to Washington Road and to realign the northern terminus at Washington Road to connect with Alexander Drive. The project also includes replacement of the substandard bridge over Rae’s Creek. The current concept consists of two travel lanes with a center turn lane from Washington Road to Wheeler Road. The proposed design approach will take into account environmental and cultural surroundings including residential properties, adjacent commercial developments, Westover Memorial Park Cemetery, and the environmentally-sensitive Rae’s Creek. The resulting roadway design and project implementation will provide a cost-effective solution to improve both current and future traffic operations on Berckmans Road and surrounding roadways.
Besides adding that the project’s construction will take approximately two years to complete, that is basically all the information listed on the fact sheet.
“Well, that doesn’t tell me much,” Howell said, laughing.
Howell and her grandmother were informed that, along with widening Berckmans Road and replacing the bridge over Rae’s Creek, the city is also planning to install a roundabout at the intersection of Berckmans Road and Ingleside Drive.
“Oh, please, no. I can’t stand roundabouts,” said Howell’s grandmother, who asked that her name not be included in the story. “I think four-way stop signs are much better. Tell them that for me. I would, but I don’t want to cause any trouble. I’m too old to stir up trouble.”
But residents living near the road project aren’t the only ones who are wary of questioning or being critical of the city’s plan.
Back in 2012, when the Berckmans Road plan was first introduced to the public, some of the most vocal critics of the project were Vera and Doug Frohman, owners of Jay’s Music & Sound Super Center located on the corner of Washington and Berckmans roads.
The Frohmans started a petition against the $16 million road project, calling the plan a “waste of taxpayer money,” according to a 2012 article in The Augusta Chronicle.
The couple collected hundreds of signatures in support of their effort, but the road project proceeded despite their objections.
By 2013, Augusta National pledged to lend the city of Augusta the necessary money, interest free, to advance the first phase of the Berckmans Road project in order to get it moving ahead of the state’s schedule. The city has agreed to pay back the golf club through future collections of the 1-cent sales tax for transportation projects.
Following the loan from Augusta National, there was really nothing holding back the project at that point.
When a Metro Spirit reporter called Vera Frohman requesting a comment about the Berckmans Road project, she declined.
“I can’t do it because I got some repercussions from commenting on it before,” Vera Frohman politely said. “I just rather not do it again.”
While there is clearly still a lot of concerns and questions surrounding the Berckmans Road project, Augusta’s interim Deputy Administrator and Traffic Engineer Steve Cassell insists the city is trying to inform citizens of what to expect and coordinate the roadwork to make it as painless as possible.
“The basic information is the whole project is from Wheeler Road to Washington Road and it is going to be a widening project for the most part,” Cassell said, adding that the city is expecting to hold additional public hearings in the future. “We are widening it from two lanes to three lanes, providing a center left turn lane, sidewalks and a multi-use trail on one side. Then, as you get closer to Washington Road, there will be a realignment to Alexander Drive.”
With the connection of Berckmans Road to Alexander Drive, Cassell said it will improve the connectivity from River Watch Parkway to west Augusta and the Hill area.
“Right now, you have a lot of people coming off of River Watch Parkway and turning left from Alexander Drive onto Washington Road and then turning right on Berckmans Road,” Cassell said, pointing to the streets on a roadmap. “With this project, we are going to create a north-south traffic connection that is missing right now.”
Drivers will be able to travel from River Watch Parkway, up Alexander Drive, cross Washington Road and connect directly with the new portion of Berckmans Road, Cassell said.
There will also be a bridge replacement by Rae’s Creek because the current structure is “insufficient,” and the city is planning the roundabout at the Ingleside Drive intersection to help keep traffic “moving along smoothly,” he said.
“I know some people aren’t wild about roundabouts and they can be a little intimidating at first,” he said, “but after a few times, drivers will quickly get the hang of it.”
Cassell said the project will be done in two phases, hopefully over the next two years.
“Phase one of the project will begin just north of Wicklow Drive,” he said. “We are projecting a start date of May 1. Basically, we will straighten up that curve along Berckmans Road. Then, Heath Drive will become a cul-de-sac.”
When the first phase of the project is completed, drivers will only be able to access Heath Drive from Wicklow Drive, Cassell said.
Currently, a few hospitality facilities are located on Heath Drive including The Lodge on Heath which is located directly across from Gate 9 of Augusta National.
“Those houses will still have their access,” Cassell said. “It will just be from Wicklow Drive.”
The smaller side streets connected to Berckmans Road located north of Heath Drive going towards Washington Road (which no longer have any homes located on them and the surrounding property has been purchased by Augusta National) will be closed to public traffic, he said.
However, Cassell insists that the existing Berckmans Road from Washington Road to just north of Wicklow Drive will remain open until the new road alignment is completed and ready for traffic.
“Berckmans Road will be open,” Cassell said. “The existing section will not be closed until the new portion is opened. So, at no point are we just shutting everybody down.”
The first phase of the road project that runs through the Augusta National property is expected to be completed by March of 2016, just a few weeks prior to Masters Week next year.
“It is a very tight schedule,” Cassell admitted. “But it is what it is. So, after the new road is built and it is opened up to traffic, the old one will be abandoned and reverted over to Augusta National.”
The city is still finalizing the design for the second phase of the road project that will begin just south of Wicklow Drive and continue up the hill to Wheeler Road, Cassell said.
“That may take a little longer because we are not dealing with just one, single property owner who is going to donate most of the right-of-way,” he said. “We are going to be dealing with a lot more property owners. But, theoretically, we would like to start it right after the Masters next year. That is what we are shooting for. But, if we don’t, it won’t be the end of the world.”
The only time that a section of Berckmans Road may need to be completely closed to traffic is when crews will be working to upgrade the Rae’s Creek Bridge.
“We are going to try to keep it open,” he said, “but there might be times when the road will be closed for a short period of time.”
When asked if he had heard any concerns or complaints from the surrounding neighborhoods about the road project, Cassell said he had not received a great deal of feedback since the initial public hearings in 2012.
But Cassell said he realizes once construction starts in May, that may change.
“Is the neighborhood going to be inconvenienced, considering what they are used to today?” Cassell asked. “Yeah, probably. But it’s not something that won’t be recoverable.”
Over the past week, the Metro Spirit has contacted more than 50 homeowners surrounding the Berckmans Road project, either in person, by phone or via mail.
It has been astonishing the number of residents who want to discuss the project, but do not wish for their names to be included in the story.
The primary reason they did not want to be quoted: Fear of repercussions from the Augusta National.
“No one knows what the Augusta National plans to do in the future,” one woman said. “If I criticize this road project today, what happens to me and my house down the road if they want to start buying property again?”
It’s a real concern for many of her neighbors, she said.
From 1999 to 2006, Augusta National purchased more than 50 lots for approximately $23 million, according to a 2006 article in Golf World that examined real estate sales along Washington Road and neighborhoods surrounding the golf club.
The magazine called the purchase of the properties by Augusta National an “unprecedented buying spree of neighboring commercial and residential properties.”
Many local residents living around Berckmans Road are still waiting to see if Augusta National may choose to spend big bucks for their properties, too.
A few days after contacting residents surrounding the Berckmans Road project, the Metro Spirit received an anonymous package at the newspaper’s office that was labeled “From Concerned Jamestown Homeowners.”
The package detailed some of the community’s thoughts about the road project, including the fact that many felt none of the residents were “afforded the opportunity or forum to air their concerns.”
“We learned about it after it was set in concrete,” a letter in the package stated. “Sure, the city held ‘info meetings,’ after the fact, to let us know how these plans would be implemented, but no meetings or hearings were ever held with residents of the area to explain to us why there was this urgent need to relocate and widen Berckmans Road.”
During one of the community meetings, the residents asked a city traffic engineer why the project was needed, the letter states.
“He responded that it was being done to alleviate traffic congestion problems,” the anonymous letter states. “Really? After all these years, traffic suddenly became a problem?”
Many residents in the Jamestown subdivision do not believe that to be the case, the letter states.
“It’s the general consensus of most of us in and around the neighborhood that the project was conceived and driven by the powers that be at the Augusta National Golf Club to propel its own selfish objectives,” the letter states. “The Augusta National Golf Club and its membership, as we’ve seen time and again, wields a powerful sword in this city and they generally get what they want, with this project being a strong case in point… The ‘long arm’ of the Augusta National Golf Club is far reaching and it is for this reason that we write this anonymously.”
Back at her home off Wicklow Drive, Mechone Williams said she completely understands her neighbors’ concerns about speaking out against the road project or any plans by the Augusta National.
“They are giants. We are like David and they are Goliath,” Williams said of the Augusta National. “Honestly, a lot of people feel powerless.”
No one should feel powerless in their own home, Williams said.
“I’m a native Augustan. I was born and raised here,” she said. “My father was in the military and my mother worked in the school system for 30 years. They taught us to go after what we wanted, as far as the American dream.”
Williams is extremely proud of the fact that she purchased a beautiful home and raised five wonderful children in her hometown.
But now she feels like she’s being punished for staying and building a home in Augusta.
“We’ve been in this city all of our lives,” Williams said. “We are making so many provisions for visitors who are only here in our city for seven to 10 days at the very most for Masters Week. We live in the Garden City 52 weeks a year. To me, in a lot of ways, it is disrespectful and it’s hurtful.”
No one entity in the city of Augusta should wield so much power, Williams said.
“This is our community,” she said. “This is our neighborhood and they are basically, telling us, ‘I don’t care how long you’ve been invested in your mortgage. I don’t care what you bought into this area in the beginning. This is what we want to do and because we are Augusta National, we’re doing it.’ That is totally wrong and they need to know it.”