With all of this talk about what to do with the former Regency Mall site and how development of the property could transform south Augusta, it reminded us of a feature story that ran in the summer of 2000. This story, which was entitled, “Does South Augusta really suck?” asked many of the same questions that city leaders are pondering today, exactly 15 years later. The question now seems to be, will things ever change in south Augusta? We thought many of our readers would enjoy looking back on this story written by former Metro Spirit reporter Brian Neill that ran on July 6, 2000.
Augusta Commissioner Ulmer Bridges always gets a kick out of seeing what location in the county TV newscasters will next refer to as south Augusta.
“I’ve seen them standing in east Augusta, just on the edge of downtown, and refer to it as south Augusta, and I’ve seen them stand on Tobacco Road and refer to it as Hephzibah, and Hephzibah is five miles away,” said Bridges, who represents constituents in south Augusta. “It’s really amazing and it never ceases to amaze me as to the media’s lack of knowledge of what part of the county is south Augusta.”
Commissioner Andy Cheek, who also represents citizens in that region of the county, said he always is frustrated by the people the media choose to represent the community.
“One of the things, and television is the worst about this, they’ll pick out the most toothless, ignorant-sounding individual and put him on as a typical south Augustan,” Cheek said. “And that’s simply not the case.”
But is it the media, or the conditions people are living under in that region of the county, that is responsible for the common perception of south Augusta?
What perception, you ask?
Well, basically that it sucks.
Hey, we didn’t say it. All you have to do is read the Whine Line for a few weeks or peruse the letters to the editor in The Augusta Chronicle to see that these are a downtrodden people. Water shortages. Trailers. Rednecks. No public funding (usurped by west Augusta). Poor schools. Asphalt curbing. No city garbage pickup. Businesses packing up and leaving. Residents packing up and leaving. (Columbia County, here we come!) Abandoned vehicles in the yard.
Did we mention water shortages?
The reasons given for these disparities vary, but almost all fingers point to the days long before consolidation of the city and county, when south Augusta had to come begging for utilities and services.
And the fact that many of the region’s major stores, and even some schools, are still on septic tanks, shows that the citizenry’s hands are still out.
But many of those who point to shortcomings in south Augusta can just as quickly enumerate improvements in that portion of the county that promise things will only get better.
Some think a new leadership, more active and concerned with the well-being of future south Augustans, has risen from the ashes of the southside Mafia days, when the fate of the area was determined by good ol’ boys gathering at barbecue spots over bourbon.
“I think some of this goes way back to the history of Richmond County, back to the time when development began and spread into west Augusta,” Bridges said. “Because the utilities weren’t in south Augusta, they did not supply south of the Gordon Highway. So, there was no development or the development was slow in coming.”
However, the reasons for the perception seem to go deeper than lagging infrastructure.
Many outsiders, and even the residents themselves, view south Augusta as home to some type of second-class citizen. The red-haired stepchild, if you will.
Think Erskine Caldwell’s Lester family.
Not the case, said Duncan Fordham, who has run Duncan Drugs on Peach Orchard Road for the past 21 years.
“South Augusta’s got probably about 80 percent of the population (in Augusta-Richmond County) that controls about 30 percent of the money,” Fordham said. “So, it’s hard-working people that control very little of the wealth and that’s probably where the perception comes from.
“It’s not so much the media’s fault. They’re just portraying what everybody else believes and that’s, all rednecks live in south Augusta and none live in west Augusta. It’s just the perception that’s grown over the years.”
Transiency is one phenomenon with which south Augustans have to grapple more so than residents in other parts of the county. That, some say, makes for a weaker civic voice, because many residents aren’t planning to stay or don’t have enough permanent residents around with which to commiserate and complain.
As Cheek says, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” which is why many zoning nightmares — trailers grandfathered into otherwise normal-looking subdivisions, for example — have gone unchallenged in south Augusta for years.
Those same infractions wouldn’t last a week, Cheek reasons, in most sections of west Augusta. Cheek attributes the inordinate mobility in south Augusta to a high degree of rental property and the large number of residents who are stationed at Fort Gordon.
On the flipside, however, a large number of Fort Gordon retirees have taken up residence in posh sections of south Augusta, such as Sand Ridge.
Cheek and his wife settled down permanently in their old south Augusta neighborhood, where they first met and plan to stay. All is not lost.
Betty Beard, wife of Augusta Commissioner Lee Beard, said she doesn’t understand how the poor opinion of south Augusta spreads. Beard, who lives downtown in Port Royal, said she has many friends who live in that section of the county.
“I know numerous people who live out in south Augusta and they don’t feel that way,” Beard said. “I don’t know how that thought gets out there. I think we’re doing a disservice to Augusta to speak in that manner about south Augusta.”
Cheek said he talked with several south Augustans before being interviewed for this story and said a majority feels the matter boils down to a small group of individuals who perpetuate the disenfranchised myth.
“I kind of surveyed a bunch of different people … And they said one thing they wanted everybody to know is that most of us out here don’t feel like anybody’s stepchildren,” Cheek said. “We are independent thinkers and hard workers. It’s just a vocal few that claim stepchild status.”
Fordham doesn’t live in south Augusta. However, he said he manages to get a good feel for the atmosphere in the community through the customers who frequent his store. And the faces of those customers have continued to change over the years.
“Over the past 20 years since I’ve been here, they’re (residents) from A to Z,” Fordham said. “We’re a more diversified area than any other section in Augusta. south Augusta … it’s like a melting pot. And each year, south Augusta grows, and grows, and grows.”
But Fordham is also aware that Columbia County continues to grow — often adding to its ranks with south Augustans. In most cases, Fordham said, it’s the quality of the schools that have driven residents across the county line.
“I want to support the county, but the school system I can’t,” said Fordham, whose children attend private school. “The younger generation that do well, as they have children, they’ll leave south Augusta and move into Columbia County. And the main reason is the schools.”
Then again, some potential south Augustans never make it there in the first place.
“We know real estate agents are still telling people in town, ‘Don’t move to south Augusta. Move to west Augusta or Columbia County,’ ” Bridges said. “So, that’s the perception some of these people get when they get off the plane.”
Seeing Is Believing
If ever there was a case for employing that beaten-to-death, cliche “Field of Dreams” reference, it’s here.
Cheek drives down Windsor Spring Road, through an area known as being the largest in the county without sewer, to a remote road that winds through empty grass lots before descending into a vast opening.
With $7 million spent to date, the Diamond Lakes Regional Park is south Augusta’s new pride and joy. Many feel it’s also the community’s salvation and answer to the commonly posed question, “What’s in south Augusta worth going there for?”
Cheek proudly describes how nearly every night, “even the overflow parking,” is filled to capacity with people from throughout the county, engaging in baseball and softball competitions.
The total cost for the Diamond Lakes project could reach $18 million to $20 million if planned additional parking, a community center and a three-mile walking and bike path are added, said Tom Beck, director of Augusta-Richmond County’s parks and recreation department.
“You can see, here’s an example of something that’s very good in south Augusta,” Cheek said. “A lot of people who are claiming to be stepchildren have never been to see what’s in their own backyard.”
Room To Grow
Jimmy Smith was in on the early stages of the Diamond Lakes project’s development. Looking out the window of the Burger King at the intersection of Windsor Spring and Peach Orchard roads on a recent morning over breakfast, Smith recalled a time when none of the surrounding businesses were there.
“Peach Orchard Road (U.S. Highway 25) was a one-lane road,” Smith said. “I mean, it’s changed so much in the last 40 years it’s just unbelievable. Gordon Highway wasn’t even there. You just went through the fields where it was plowed.”
Like others in the community, Smith saw hope as the southern end of the county slowly received a better share of business and infrastructure, doled out in tantalizing increments.
But that hope was dashed by the sudden reversal of that trend, signalled in part by merchants beginning to flee Regency Mall.
“When the stores in Regency Mall began to close and move is when we realized something needed to be done in south Richmond County,” Smith said. “Because the stores were closing, people were moving west, and it didn’t appear that anyone was attempting to make a change.”
So, Smith began talking to businesspeople, churches and banks. With their help, in January of 1992, Smith officially formed the south Richmond County Pride and Progress Committee.
Later, under the guidance of then-Augusta Tomorrow President Monty Osteen, the group incorporated and became Greater Augusta Progress, Inc. In March of 1994, Pride and Progress approached the Augusta Commission and asked that it purchase 203 acres on Windsor Spring Road for Diamond Lakes.
“And that has come to fruition and we are so proud of that,” Smith said. “And now a lot of church leagues and industrial leagues have to come out here to play their games at Diamond Lakes.”
From there, however, Smith’s voice takes on a tone of discouragement.
“And as far as I know,” he said, “that’s about the only thing they have to come out here for, other than driving tests (at the DMV) out on Highway 56 and some of the businesses that people drive to work to out here from Columbia County and west Augusta.”
Asked if that was frustrating, Smith replied, “Very.”
But Smith thinks the situation can only get better. He chalked up south Augusta’s ongoing life struggle to shortsightedness on the part of past commissions.
“They (past commissions) didn’t build for the future, obviously,” Smith said. “They built for today, and it didn’t work out.”
As far as a light at the end of the tunnel, Smith points to the Lowe’s home improvement center under development at the intersection of Peach Orchard and Windsor Spring roads.
The store has already gotten the attention of other businesses considering locating in the area, Smith said.
Another example of coming prosperity is an 800-acre housing subdivision off Hephzibah/McBean Road being developed by a retired cardiologist.
Bridges said developers are telling him that the trend in south Augusta is for 3- and 5-acre parcels for residences.
“You’re still going to have trailer parks and that type of thing,” Bridges said, “but you’re also going to see a lot of neighborhoods coming in that can compete with anything else in this region.” “The future out here is just unbelievable,” Smith said. “This is the only place they can expand.”
Put Up or Shut Up
Smith has been trying to kick this litter thing for the past nine years.
That’s how long it’s been since he started the first roadside cleanup campaign, tackling a 10-mile stretch of Windsor Spring Road. Since then, his Pride and Progress and Greater Augusta Progress, Inc., along with other businesses and civic entities, have sponsored more and more stretches of road in the southern portion of the county for litter pickup.
Funny thing is, the people who seem to complain the loudest about the litter problem never seem to be the ones who show up.
That, he said, kind of puts into perspective the validity of people’s gripes and complaints about south Richmond County.
“And there’s so many that complain, but really do nothing,” said Smith. “And when something happens, these are the first people you hear from. And the perception is really ‘it.’ However they perceive it, that’s the way it is.”
Cheek pointed out that many south Augustans who gripe also don’t vote.
“The thing that west Augusta does that south Augusta doesn’t, that makes us very easy to ignore, is they vote and we don’t,” Cheek said. “Typically, west Augusta votes 30, 40, 50 percent and even higher in some precincts. Over here, we’re lucky to get 25 or 30 percent in a lot of the neighborhoods.”
Lynn Bailey, director of the Augusta-Richmond County Board of Elections, agrees that south Augusta lags in its voting, with the exception of certain pockets, the Goshen and Mount Vernon areas, for example.
“The lowest turnouts are generally those precincts close to Fort Gordon,” Bailey said. “And generally, I think the reason for that is you have so many transients in those areas and from a time a person registers to vote, until the time a person actually has an opportunity to vote, they’ve moved and relocated.”
Then again, Bridges said, some people just like to gripe. Period.
“You’ll always have people that want to be a victim and claim victim’s status,” Bridges said. “For whatever reason, I don’t know.”
But Smith, for one, won’t rest until the banter of discontent issuing forth from south Augusta is silenced, or at least reduced to a whisper.
“We really feel that the best is yet to come,” Smith said. “It’s just taken time. “I retired two years ago and I have spent almost full time with Pride and Progress and Greater Augusta Progress trying to make a change and leave a legacy for my grandchildren so that things can be better than this. And I really want this to happen and I know this is not going to happen unless I put forth the effort.”