Expanding the Augusta Common.
Connecting downtown to the Savannah River.
Bringing life and activities back to the Riverwalk.
Creating golf cart tours and shuttles.
Properly honoring the Godfather of Soul James Brown.
Offering first-class festivals.
Developing trails and public art sculpture gardens.
Defining the downtown districts to make them more tourist friendly.
These are only a few of the major goals outlined in the Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau’s Destination Blueprint that was officially adopted this month by the Augusta Commission.
The timeline for implementing these recommendations is between five and 10 years.
But one look at the impressive artistic renderings of some of these proposed downtown projects and many Augustans can’t help but ask one simple question: Can Augusta really make this happen over the next decade?
Ever since unveiling the Destination Blueprint at the 2017 State of Tourism address in February, Barry White, president and CEO of the Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau, has been working hard to build community support for the plan.
“We think this is a time of unprecedented opportunity,” White said. “We have to take advantage of the things that we know that we have that are unique to Augusta… That is really the basis of our plan. What are the resources that we have that nobody else has that makes us unique, special and different.”
Destination Blueprint will get Augusta on the right path to achieving those goals, White said.
“We are at a point now that we have identified top projects of those that we want to execute on behalf of this city,” White said.
One crucial need is for downtown Augusta to connect with one of the city’s most valuable resources: The Savannah River.
“The main objective of the expansion of the Augusta Common is one to provide larger green space for larger events and festival to take place,” White said. “And, most importantly, to connect the river with downtown and find an easy way for people to engage with the river and find the river. So, that is the pot of gold at the end of the expansion, if you will. The expansion has been a long time coming and this is a way to connect to the river.”
The extension of the Augusta Common would basically create a riverfront plaza that would visibly erase the barrier currently created by the existing levee. The new plaza could offer various waterfront recreational and entertainment activities such as kayak expeditions, a water shuttle, personal watercraft rentals, a retail store, a cafe and exhibits interpreting the significance of the Savannah River to Augusta.
The proposed artist renderings show the Augusta Common extended across Reynolds Street to the levee, where a gradual incline would form the new plaza and “river destination center.”
While many city leaders were excited about Destination Blueprint, concerns about the cost of the proposed projects immediately surfaced.
“What does an endorsement of this plan really mean?” Augusta Commissioner Ben Hasan asked.
“I do not take an endorsement to mean necessarily that you have agreed to fund everything that these plans may call for,” Jackson told Hasan. “It does not require any financial commitment.”
Augusta Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle insisted that the city’s endorsement of the blueprint was simply supporting the concept presented by the CVB.
“By adopting it, it doesn’t hold the city liable,” Guilfoyle said, adding that, at this point, no financial requests have been made by CVB. “It is no cost to the city.”
White agreed, adding that the CVB will return to the city in a few weeks with additional details about how to get some of these projects moving and possible funding sources.
“We are not looking for money, we are looking for the approval of the concept,” White told the commission last month.
Destination Blueprint is a result of the CVB partnering with a Minneapolis-based consultant called Conventions, Sports & Leisure International, or CSL.
In 2016, CSL began analyzing the city’s existing concepts for tourism projects and comparing Augusta to other competitive tourism destinations such as Columbus, Ga., Greenville, S.C., Asheville, N.C., and Oklahoma City.
For more than a year, CSL interviewed approximately 130 local and regional organizations and distributed surveys to over 25,000 residents. A task force also reviewed existing local plans including Westobou, the Augusta Sustainable Development Agenda, Augusta Canal’s Master Plan and the Laney Walker/Bethlehem Redevelopment Plan.
As a result, CSL identified more than 70 existing projects for consideration.
While commissioners supported the plan with a vote of 7-2 earlier this month, a battle began brewing over what Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams saw as a lack of plans to honor the legacy of the Godfather of Soul James Brown.
Even though that discussion of James Brown took center stage during the city’s discussion of the plan, White insists that the Destination Blueprint wouldn’t be a proper tourism plan without the Godfather of Soul.
“Our plan has a significant portion dedicated to the legacy of James Brown,” White stated. “The plan hasn’t been completely developed, but it is identified as one of the top six or eight priorities of Destination Blueprint.”
In no way would such an important plan for the future of downtown Augusta neglect to promote James Brown, White said.
“I’m committed and our organization is committed to making that particular focus happen: respecting and providing an opportunity for people to enjoy the legacy of James Brown and many other assets that we have in this community,” White said.
And the CVB is currently working on ways to make these proposals a reality, he said.
“These are concepts, but we will have something within three or four weeks,” White said. “We will also have some funding recommendations and some other things that we’ve been working on.”
One of the main purposes of this blueprint is to get the ball rolling on tourism projects, including honoring James Brown, White said.
“We know that we have got to do something,” White told the commission, referring to enhancing the city’s connection to James Brown. “What that looks like and what that feels like and what that experience is, we don’t know exactly. But that is something that we would work on together.”
Where in the world is Cooper Carry?
But the discussion of Destination Blueprint also became tied with work being performed in Augusta by an Atlanta consultant, Cooper Carry.
Back in 2015, the city hired Gary Warner, director of planning and landscape architecture for Cooper Carry in Atlanta, to review the James Brown Plaza and provide both long-term and short-term solutions to enhance the area.
These proposals were part of Cooper Carry’s efforts to develop an Augusta Downtown Concept Plan.
Almost two years ago, Therese Huffman, founder of Signature Design in Atlanta, presented the Augusta Commission’s economic development subcommittee with several sketches of proposed upgrades to the James Brown Plaza that included everything from informational plaques around the statue to a “soul stage” with flashing lights, digital music and dance elements.
She said Augusta could create a park much like Marietta Square in Atlanta.
On June 6, the same day that the city was asked to support Destination Blueprint, commissioners received a report from Engineering Director Abie Ladson on an extensive plan for Telfair, Broad and Greene streets, as well as James Brown Boulevard and Fifth, Sixth, 13th streets being developed by Cooper Carry using $1.2 million of Transportation Investment Act funds.
However, while this $1.2 million plan by Cooper Carry is separate from the enhancement of the James Brown Plaza, the discussion of two plans were quickly entwined and, as a result, confused some of the commissioners.
Williams insisted that Cooper Carry needs to produce a solid plan to improve the James Brown Plaza.
“We have not done anything except move the trees and move the shrubbery,” Williams said. “Since then, nobody has even said a word. Nobody has asked about it. Nobody has inquired. Nobody has brought nothing to this body or said anything.”
Augusta’s Recreation and Parks Director Glenn Parker said the city didn’t really want to proceed in making changes to the park until it received final recommendations from Cooper Carry.
“I think one of the things that we want to be very careful of is not doing anything on a short-term basis that would absolutely contradict what Cooper Carry is going to recommend,” Parker said. “I’ve seen some of the very preliminary plans, but I haven’t seen anything that they’ve developed recently. I am not sure what they’ve developed recently regarding James Brown Plaza.”
Williams agreed that he hasn’t heard a peep out of Cooper Carry for months and months.
“I don’t know where we are now. I thought we were still working on a plan. But if we are waiting on Cooper Carry…” Williams paused, shaking his head. “If we are waiting on somebody who is waiting on somebody else, we are going to be still waiting.”
Instead, Williams insisted that the city of Augusta should be taking the reins of deciding how to best honor James Brown.
“That’s the problem that I’ve got with the city of Augusta,” Williams said. “We have been sitting back waiting on somebody else to do something. We are the ones we have been waiting on. We are the ones who should be moving this thing forward. We ought to be the ones pushing it. That’s why we don’t get anywhere.”
For years, Williams said, he has tried to get his colleagues to sincerely start moving towards promoting Augusta’s connections to James Brown, and yet, hardly anything has happened.
“I’m very disappointed. I don’t know what to do or say at this point,” he said. “What are we waiting on?”
Mayor Pro Tem Mary Davis agreed that it might be time to bring Cooper Carry back to the table to get a progress report.
“We did have that subcommittee and we were starting to kind of make some progress and we’ve stalled,” Davis said.
Before Davis could make a motion to set up another meeting with Cooper Carry, Ladson quickly explained that Cooper Carry’s contracted work involving the James Brown Plaza was completed.
“I am confused because what do we want Cooper Carry to do?” Ladson said, explaining that Cooper Carry was given a scope of services and the company has finished what was asked of it regarding the James Brown Plaza. “Now, if we want them to do some extra additional things, then that is an amendment to the contract. I think we ought to be clear about what we need.”
Cooper Carry simply needs guidance from the commission on how to proceed, but any additional work would be an amendment to the consultant’s existing contract and, therefore, additional money, Ladson said.
“They need to know which way to go, which we don’t really know yet,” Davis said.
While Williams continued to shake his head, Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis explained that Cooper Carry had offered to continue working with the city on an enhancement plan for the James Brown Plaza, but the cost was around $140,000.
“At that time, this body walked away from that conversation,” he said, adding that it is time for the commission to make a decision on if it wants to move forward. “I know for a fact that there is money out there to get it done if this is what we want to get done.”
The mayor was hoping for a motion from commissioners to take the preliminary drawings of the plaza improvements by Cooper Carry and look for a funding source to continue the enhancement of the area.
Instead, commissioners voted to table any action on the plaza until a later date.
“There are so many different factors to this that we don’t know who’s on first and what’s on second,” Williams said. “And people are saying, ‘Well if we do this, we can’t do that.’ Or, ‘If we do this, that’s the wrong spot.’ But we have to do something.”
Augusta Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle had his own suggestion on how to enhance the James Brown Plaza.
“I don’t know if this will stick, but it is something I was thinking of,” Guilfoyle said. “Every time that we look at the James Brown statue, what do we see? We see James sitting up there on the granite, a clean area around it, but in the background you have the glass front window.”
Guilfoyle was referring to the empty Kress Building across from the James Brown Plaza which is owned by local businesswoman Bonnie Ruben and her husband, Jeff Gorelick.
“Try this. That building belongs to Jeff Gorelick. See if we could put a projection and do the videos of James Brown on that projection, so when you are looking at James Brown, you’ve got his music and his movement,” Guilfoyle said. “That will be cheap, but it will be an attraction.”
Not one of his colleagues said a word.
“I know everybody is laughing at that one,” Guilfoyle said, “but it is just an idea.”
Public Art vs. Plop Art
Along with approval of the CVB’s Destination Blueprint, commissioners were also asked to support the Public Art Master Plan from the Greater Augusta Arts Council, which features seven recommendations for future public art projects.
The Public Art Master Plan is incorporated as part of Destination Blueprint, White said.
The plan, which was also developed by Convention, Sports & Leisure, recommends the creation of several projects including sculpture trails, a new festival for public art and the plan’s pilot project called the Art Cart.
Basically, the Art Cart is a golf cart that will be transformed by local artists into a functional art installation. Several of these carts are scheduled to be placed in the downtown Augusta next month.
These golf carts will serve as a shaded public seating bench and a four-slot bicycle rack, according to the Greater Augusta Arts Council.
The carts will also have a way-finding map of downtown Augusta and a charging station for handheld devices with energy provided by solar panels on the roof.
“Textron, or EZ-GO, was interested in helping out with this public art project,” Brenda Durant, executive director of the Greater Augusta Arts Council stated during the announcement of the Art Cart project. “Their engineers wanted to break out of the mold a bit.”
As a result, the Public Art Advisory Panel and Downtown Development Authority agreed that the partnership would be a fitting nod to Augusta’s status as the “golf cart capital of the world” while keeping the installation locally focused and functional, Durant said.
However, when it was time for the Public Art Master Plan to be considered by the Augusta Commission, once again, the main topic that was discussed was the Godfather of Soul.
Augusta Commissioner Ben Hasan insisted that the Public Art Master Plan did not adequately pay tribute to Augusta’s musical legend.
“James Brown ought to be the first thing that comes to mind,” Hasan said. “It shouldn’t be an afterthought.”
At that point, Guilfoyle grabbed the 47-page Public Art Master Plan and held it up in front of his colleagues.
“On the cover of the Public Art Master Plan is James Brown,” Guilfoyle said, pointing to a photo of the statue in the James Brown Plaza. “It is mentioned seven times within the book.”
Durant agreed that James Brown played a prominent role in the Public Art Master Plan.
“James Brown was not simply mentioned as an idea or a concept, but very specifically as a monumental sculpture,” Durant said, adding that the plan is to go beyond just the James Brown Plaza. “So James Brown is in there and very heavily in there. I think that James Brown would be well represented in public art.”
She told the commission that it was time for Augusta to “capitalize on its famous son.”
“It’s past time,” Williams quickly replied. “As an old man, I can see that, so why hasn’t the city of Augusta gotten behind it and done something?”
Despite some of the commissioners’ concerns, the Public Art Master Plan was approved with a 7-2 vote.
However, a week later, there was some public criticism of the Public Art Master Plan.
Local artist Tom Hubbard told commissioners that the Greater Augusta Arts Council had not properly engaged both artists and the community in its plan.
“I am a local artist working on public art projects and I don’t claim to know all of the answers, but I do have experience in the field of public art and I’m greatly concerned about the actions and capabilities of the Greater Augusta Arts Council to implement public art in the city of Augusta,” Hubbard told the commissioners on June 13. “It troubles me that the Arts Council is not engaging the public in these projects, something that is clearly stated in their own public art policy.”
He also had grave concerns about the proposed Art Cart.
“The first public art project, called the Art Cart, is a poorly conceived idea that reduces artists to being nothing more than decorators with little or no community input and no idea of where this work will be installed,” Hubbard said. “This is not the way to produce works of public art because public art is not decoration.”
Right now, the public has absolutely nothing invested in this Art Cart project because they weren’t included in the proposal, Hubbard said.
Support from the citizens of the county is crucial to the success of any public art project, Hubbard said.
“The community actually becomes the stewards of this work after it is installed and the Arts Council and the artists are moving on to other projects,” Hubbard said. “That is one of the reasons it is called public art. I have seen and experienced this first-hand in my own projects and when it is done well, you foster civic pride, you create a sense of place and you educate people.”
However, when the community is not involved in the public art from the beginning, “you get a very different result,” he said.
Hubbard said it would not be difficult for the Greater Augusta Arts Council to provide a public meeting so the community could learn and understand the purpose of the project.
“My other concerns about the Art Cart include issues of maintenance and professional practices,” Hubbard said.
“In my view, any artist that responds to this call for the Art Cart is being set up to fail because they are being asked to monitor and maintain this work for a period of two years. This is simply unprofessional and it is not standard practice in the field of public art.”
Artists can’t control the public’s treatment of their art, Hubbard explained.
“The public will interact with this work in ways that you can’t even begin to imagine,” Hubbard said. “Sometimes good, sometimes playful and fun, and sometimes not so much. I tell people to think of their worst-case scenario, to multiple it by 10 and then to check on social media because this may become the new image for your city if the project is not well thought out.”
Hubbard said many of the local artists that he’s spoken to are upset about the Public Art Master Plan.
“Public art is not about tourism,” Hubbard said. “It may be an ancillary benefit, but it is not the reason you build this work and you put art out in the public. This plan is a recipe for disaster in the hands of an arts council, who, left to their own devices, seems uninterested in engaging artists or the community and seeks the path of least resistance… I’m asking you to pull the plug, to put a hold on this project and to engage the community.”
Guilfoyle immediately disagreed with Hubbard’s assessment of plan and strongly defended the Greater Augusta Arts Council.
“The Arts Council does a lot to benefit this community,” he said, adding that Arts in the Heart of Augusta is one of the biggest festivals in the CSRA. “Just look at Arts in the Heart. That might not be art to you, but it shows art during that whole weekend.”
While Williams said he fully supported the Greater Augusta Arts Council, he insisted that the city needs to hear all sides of a situation, especially when it involves the public.
“I like to always have a different perspective versus just one,” he said.
In the end, the commission took Hubbard’s request as information, but refused to halt the project.
Instead, commissioners invited Hubbard to attend the next public meeting of the Greater Augusta Arts Council to learn more about the public art plan.
But Hubbard insisted that the Art Cart could easily become the next big disaster for downtown Augusta.
He stated that there needs to be more pubic input into the project.
“Otherwise, you run into what, in the industry is usually called Plop Art, which is where it feels like something just fell out of the sky and landed there,” Hubbard said. “And that builds resentment because people don’t feel like they are a part of that. They don’t feel like it represents them and they don’t feel like they were included in it.”
“I’m not waiting anymore,” Williams said. “I’ve decided I’m going to take James Brown Boulevard and make it really honor James Brown from Laney Walker Boulevard all the way down to Broad Street with statues and everything.”
While Williams still hopes that downtown will move forward with its plans to promote James Brown, he said he knows for a fact that the neighborhoods surrounding Laney Walker Boulevard down to Broad Street will embrace the idea of creating a gateway into downtown honoring the “hardest working man in show business.”
“We aren’t going to limit it to just that area, but I want to enhance that corridor,” Williams said. “Where better to honor James Brown than on James Brown Boulevard? That’s the area he grew up in and it heads straight into downtown. So I think it’s a great start. I’m ready to get moving on it. No more waiting.”