Though last week’s meeting between the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and stakeholders in Riverwalk Augusta, downtown’s signature riverfront amenity, might have resulted in the appearance of a unified front, it’s clear that there are different agendas regarding the $1 million in SPLOST funds the DDA plans to spend on the project.
The money, part of the $184.7 million SPLOST VI referendum that Richmond County voters approved in 2009, was earmarked by the DDA for Riverwalk improvements last fall after the DDA turned down a request from the Recreation, Parks and Facilities department to use some of that money for pruning trees along the riverfront property.
“We felt like that was a maintenance issue and should be taken care of by the city, but we also thought the Riverwalk needed a facelift,” says Margaret Woodard, executive director of the DDA. “It’s no different than the Municipal Building or any structure we build — 20 or 25 years down the road it’s going to need some rehab — so the board voted to put one million toward the Riverwalk.”
In all, Woodard says the DDA received $1.2 million in SPLOST funds, which was not project specific. According to Woodard, the group used $150,000 to match a Department of Transportation grant for James Brown Boulevard and $50,000 for smaller projects.
“We have to follow SPLOST guidelines,” she says. “It has to be for bricks and mortar. We could use it to do sidewalk upgrades and we’ve done some lighting upgrades and those types of projects. We just decided the Riverwalk was a priority.”
The DDA, which promotes the redevelopment of downtown Augusta, has been a lightning rod for criticism, particularly for its clumsy rollout of its 2010 parking plan and for its management of the Clean Augusta Downtown Initiative (CADI) program, which many feel failed to keep the downtown clean. Funded by special localized taxes raised by a Business Improvement District (BID), the program was scrapped in 2012 when a majority of downtown property owners failed to support a renewal of the BID.
Opening in 1988, the Riverwalk was envisioned by Mayor Ed McIntyre and carried through to completion by Mayor Charles DeVaney. Expected to be a cornerstone of downtown development, it successfully brought downtown Augusta to the Savannah River, but failed to spark the growth many felt would follow. In the ensuing years, it has fallen into disrepair and is widely considered to have been neglected by both the city and its residents.
The well-publicized attack last May of Wesley Spires and Ashley Solesbee brought a renewed attention to the Riverwalk, this time focusing on safety. The two were beaten at around 11 p.m. on a Friday night by two armed robbers behind the old Fort Discovery.
Two months later, Sheriff Richard Roundtree proposed a downtown safety plan that included closing portions of the Riverwalk at night and bringing cameras to the downtown area, including the Riverwalk.
“I can apply many manpower resources to the downtown and the Riverwalk, but eventually those resources have to be diverted somewhere else, so we’re looking for a plan of sustainable safety and security and not just a knee jerk reaction to those things that happened,” he told commissioners during a presentation to the Public Safety Committee.
Roundtree pushed for a type of business improvement district he called a Continually Patrolled District (CPD), but that failed to gain traction.
In April, Roundtree came back with the Safety Management and Response Team (SMART), a downtown unit made up of both certified deputies and community safety officers. Funding for the downtown cameras was never authorized, and since voters failed to pass the $194 million SPLOST VII package, the cameras remain unfunded, though ironically the initial camera discussion was the impetus for the tree trimming request that eventually triggered the DDA’s decision to fund the Riverwalk improvements.
“It does no good to have 100 cameras if you don’t trim the bushes or fix the lights,” Roundtree told commissioners, and after commissioners conducted a walkthrough of the Riverwalk, the parks department made the request to the DDA for the money to prune the trees.
Eventually, the city paid for the tree pruning and removed 30 trees in the process.
At a committee meeting on March 11, the DDA hosted its own walk along the Riverwalk, which included department heads, members of the convention and visitor’s bureau and Darryl Leech, vice president and general manager of the Augusta Marriott, one of the Riverwalk’s major stakeholders.
“The two priorities we heard from most committee members were lighting and to bring the Riverwalk back to its former glory,” Woodard says.
Other suggestions included extending the Riverwalk to the 13th Street Bridge, adding police call stations, piping in music and creating opportunities for vendor participation.
Last week’s follow up meeting was an attempt to sort through those priorities and, by bringing the stakeholders back together, Woodard says they were not only able to further discuss the priorities, they were also able to learn the things that were already being covered, like the additional security provided the SMART unit, the CVB’s contribution of signage and recreation department’s plan to update the playground equipment, fix some lighting issues and repair some of the granite.
But while the meeting appeared to be a positive one, not everyone agreed with the priorities. Leech, for example, said that his guests used the Riverwalk primarily for walking and jogging opportunities and were not interested in the retail opportunities that Al Dallas, the mayor’s executive assistant, was promoting.
And that may have been the fundamental difference to come out of the meeting. Though Woodard was talking about improving the condition of the Riverwalk, Dallas was talking about using it as a means to increase revenue, a stance that already seems to be causing some conflict.
“Darryl Leech, I think, was speaking in terms that matter to his guests,” Dallas says. “He made the point that he didn’t think the vendor activity necessarily was a draw, and that’s probably true to a visitor, but I think to pull a local there with other options, you need something beyond just recreation. Certainly for the guests of the Marriott who have a restaurant and a Starbucks and other amenities, those probably are less important because obviously they’re available at the hotel for them.”
Though Dallas stresses the need to reverse the perception that the Riverwalk is a dangerous place, which he says can best occur with the addition of better, more effective lighting, he seems to view this new money and attention as a way to help the city recoup some of its funding.
In other words, it’s time for some of Augusta’s venues to start producing.
“It’s one thing to get a certain percentage of the city’s general fund to go to support, but I think if we have parks and other assets that generate greater fees, then certainly they need to be keeping those as opposed to going back into the general fund,” he says.
Specifically, he’s talking about Riverwalk assets like the Jessye Norman Amphitheatre, the smaller stage, the Saturday Market and the smaller vendor stands he’d like to see created with some of that Riverwalk money.
“I’ve admitted that I don’t go to the Riverwalk as much as I ought to, and part of it is a lack of consistent retail — being able to be on the Riverwalk and get a smoothie or a cold beer or whatever item I may want to enjoy,” he says. “I think it’s probably cost prohibitive to put in permanent restaurants or those types of things, but I think if we could have some permanent kiosks in places that are rent paying, that would be a good idea.”
As landlord, he says, the city could dictate the hours as well as generate some profit from lease agreements, which could go back into the upkeep of the Riverwalk, whose maintenance is a drain on city resources.
“In fact, it was brought up by the Marriott’s general manager — ‘We pay $2.3 million every year in city taxes and I expect the Riverwalk to look good,’” Dallas says of the meeting. “And [interim Deputy Administrator] Steve Cassell rightly said, ‘I understand you pay $2.3 million in taxes, but we have an entire county to look after.’”
Generating additional revenue at the Riverwalk — and keeping that revenue at the Riverwalk — could go a long way toward alleviating the Marriott’s concerns over the condition of the Riverwalk, Dallas says.
“We’ve got to get smarter in terms of how we’re generating funds for the city,” he says. “Because while I see the next five or 10 years being prosperous, I also know we haven’t raised taxes in a long time and there’s not a lot of excess. It will probably take a few years to fill up the coffers, so I think we need to be mindful and be smarter in terms of how we evaluate the next generation of the Riverwalk.”
And that goes toward the management of the amphitheater and other venues.
“I will put our parks and recreation department up against any in terms of event execution, but promotions and booking is really a separate business,” he says. “And we saw what occurred when the city got out of the coliseum management business and Global Spectrum came in.”
Last July, local restaurateur and promoter Brad Usry made a pitch to the commission for a private promoter to come in and take over promotion of the amphitheater, which recreation Director Robert Levine admitted was largely unpromoted.
“We don’t really promote it,” he told commissioners. “It’s just kind of word of mouth.”
Dallas hopes retail opportunities would also bring more traffic to the Riverwalk.
“The possibilities are endless,” he says. “It’s just recognizing the things that the city and the county do well from a service standpoint and others that the public wants that may not be appropriate for the city to handle. Then, obviously, to look for those partners that are interested at getting close to the clientele that want to frequent the Riverwalk.”
For example, Columbia County leases space at its library for a coffee shop and it also leases space at Savannah Rapids Park for bike and kayak rentals, both of which are popular activities along the canal.
According to Woodard, she will submit a Request for Qualifications to bring in a consultant to start the planning, prioritizing and doing the necessary drawings. Though she hopes to have the RFQ back in the fall, she says whatever projects are undertaken will have to be phased in, since the million dollars will be released to the DDA in two installments, the second of which won’t be available until 2016.
Dallas, sensitive to criticism that Augusta is full of plans but short on progress, nevertheless says that it’s important to seek outside advice.
“We don’t need another plan, but with that said, I also know that this has been done in other places, and to be able to speak with experts that have seen other applications or other scenarios is important. Because while Augusta isn’t cities a, b or c, the means of success typically are relatively similar, and quality of life tends to have some common threads.”