When Barry White, president and CEO of the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau, presented his organization’s “Destination Blueprint” this week as a plan for future development in the downtown area, Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams quickly pounced on what he saw as a major missing component.
“Where’s James Brown?” Williams immediately asked. “We still have only one statue honoring James Brown in this city. One statue. That’s it.”
It’s been 10 years since the death of Godfather of Soul James Brown and Augusta has barely made any progress honoring his legacy and his connection with the Garden City, Williams said.
“We took the trees down. We moved the benches out of the way. It looks good,” Williams said of the James Brown Plaza. “And I understand that is a small area. I understand it is not as large as we like. Commissioner (Sean) Frantom talked about moving the statue across the street to the Common. I have no problem with moving it across the street, but we’ve got to do something besides people coming and taking pictures with it.”
Brown was easily one of the most influential musicians of the past 50 years and his music changed the world and influenced generations of musicians from rock to rap, Williams said.
And, yet, all Augusta has is a small statue honoring Brown.
It’s a shame, Williams said.
“I’m downtown all the time hearing people asking, ‘Is there anything else? Is there anything else?’” Williams said, referring to tourists looking for additional tributes to the Godfather of Soul. “It doesn’t take me long to know that if somebody keeps asking about it, I need to do something to change that.”
Back in August 2015, in order to help spruce up the James Brown Plaza on Broad Street, the city hired Gary Warner, director of planning and landscape architecture for Cooper Carry in Atlanta, to review the location 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.
“The James Brown Plaza is in the middle of Broad Street with parking on both sides, so there are some challenges with that,” Warner said in 2015. “The plaza is not very accessible. The baccharis and the azaleas have grown up considerably and kind of create a screen that makes it hard to see through the plaza. If you are not really aware the James Brown Plaza is there, you may not even know that there is a statue. You could easily walk down Broad Street and totally miss it.”
That’s a real problem for a city that is trying to promote its connection to James Brown, Warner said.
“It is also a very confined space,” Warner said. “When you walk in the plaza, you feel that confinement. That’s mostly because of the shrub material that is out there… And there are people that hang out there all day long. It is part of the challenge. Whether it is good or bad. It’s great that people have a place to hang out, but I don’t know if you want people hanging out there for four or five hours at a time.”
Therefore, the city initiated a plan to clean up the plaza and remove some of its vegetation.
Warner also said that Augusta needs to come up with a solid plan to honor James Brown.
“How do we really celebrate this man? How do we celebrate the town that this man is from? The two go hand in hand,” Warner said. “So, is there a way to become more interactive? Is there a way to display more information? Once you are out there on the plaza, there is very little story told. You really don’t know the grand story that is James Brown. You don’t know the grand story of James Brown and the city of Augusta. There is a relationship there that really needs to be celebrated.”
At the time, Therese Huffman, founder of Signature Design in Atlanta, presented the 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.
Huffman said the stage could include digital elements where visitors would not only have an opportunity to listen to Brown’s music, but they could also watch videos with him dancing.
“There are movies he made that show people how to dance, like how to do the funky chicken,” Huffman said of Brown. “It would be kind of fun for people to role-play. We could create a music and dance station.”
After Cooper Carry’s initial presentation, Williams was thrilled by the proposal.
But Williams said he hasn’t seen much happen in the plaza over the past two years.
“We have done paid them a lot of money,” Williams said, referring to Cooper Carry. “We have done given them a lot of time to do things for us and they said they can deliver, but up to this point, I have not seen anything.”
Williams said Augusta “needs to be more aggressive” when it comes to honoring James Brown’s legacy.
Following Williams’ comments, Barry White said he couldn’t agree more.
“Destination Blueprint includes elements of other plans that this body has adopted and approved in the past,” White explained to the commissioners. “There are some new things in our plan, but a lot of it includes things that have been sitting around for seven or eight years that have not been done.”
“Destination Blueprint” will get Augusta on the right path to achieving those goals, White said.
“We are at a point now that we identified top projects of those that we want to execute on behalf of this city,” White said, adding that he also wants to promote Brown’s connection to Augusta. “Absolutely, 100 percent, I agree with you. We are ready to act and we are working in that direction. We have to take advantage of the things that we know that we have that are unique to Augusta and nobody else can own them.”
It is important for Augusta to enhance the “resources” that make the city special and different from anywhere else in the world, he said.
“That’s what we are committed to,” White said.
By concentrating on those aspects of the city, it will promote visitor spending in the local economy, thereby increasing tax revenue for the city and supporting local business and jobs, he said.
Besides promoting the Godfather of Soul, White says this blueprint also supports the expansion of the Augusta Common in order to provide more green space for larger events and festivals in the downtown area.
“And, most importantly, it will connect the river with downtown,” White said. “That is the pot of gold at the end of the expansion for you. The expansion is a long time coming.”
While Williams supported the “Destination Blueprint” plan, he insisted that Augusta has to stop dragging its feet when it comes to honoring Brown.
“It can’t be tabled any longer,” Williams said.