Downtown Augusta is not safe.
There is no parking.
More than half of the storefronts are empty.
Homeless people constantly harass pedestrians on the street.
The Riverwalk is dangerous.
Downtown is dead.
Business owners along Broad Street have heard every complaint known to man about downtown Augusta.
While it is tough to hear such criticism about a place they love and work so hard to promote, it’s even more frustrating because many business owners insist those perceptions about downtown are completely untrue.
“We have never had the problems that downtown is reputed to have,” said Greig McCully, owner of Fireside Outdoor Kitchens & Grills at 1246 Broad Street. “We just do not have the vandalism, we don’t have the theft and we don’t have the homeless giving our customers problems the way everyone likes to describe. It just doesn’t happen, and we are not newcomers.”
McCully’s business started out on the corner of Second and Ellis streets more than eight years ago, but he recently relocated to Broad Street this past September.
Fireside Outdoor Kitchens & Grills, which specializes in quality, high-end grills, hearths and fireplaces, as well as designing the perfect outdoor kitchens for residents throughout the CSRA, has found its home on Broad Street, McCully said.
“I absolutely love downtown. I have always said that if all of Augusta were like the areas in the newer sections of town, I wouldn’t want to live here,” said McCully, a native of St. Simons Island who moved to Augusta more than 20 years ago. “I just love the way downtown feels. I love the atmosphere and the people. It is a beautiful area.”
After relocating to the 1200 block of Broad Street, McCully said he can’t imagine running his business anywhere else.
“From a business perspective, being downtown provides a very different feel for the customer,” McCully said. “Usually, my experience in strip malls and more modern development areas is people go, they get out of their car, they run in, they grab what they are looking for and they are gone.
“But here, it is quite common for us to have a couple come in, it’s their day off, and they will spend an hour just hanging out. They will have just finished lunch or they are on their way to dinner and they just hang. It’s great. And, guess what? They spend more money when they spend more time in the store.”
“The first thing they usually say is how open and clean it is and how surprised they are that there is something like this in Augusta,” McCully said. “It is a very finished-looking building for a downtown business. This building was done at a very high-quality level from the roof to the dirt under it. It was done well and people feel safe in it.”
In fact, Fireside Outdoor Kitchens & Grills hosts a cooking lesson every Tuesday evening, demonstrating how to barbecue everything from steaks to pizzas on the grill.
“Those events are every single Tuesday, year around, that go until 9 or 10 at night,” McCully said. “And we have never had a single problem.”
That’s why it is so difficult for McCully to hear people complain that downtown Augusta is not safe or it is a ghost town.
“I really came close to leaving downtown about a year ago because we ran out of space in our store and we had to move,” McCully said of his former building on Ellis Street. “What we looked at was we had about 4,000 existing, repeat customers and it was almost to the decimal that a third was from Aiken, a third was from Columbia County and a third was from west Augusta.
“So, it made no sense for me to go to Columbia County when I would moving closer to one-third, but I would be excluding Aiken. The fact is, an Aiken customer is not likely to travel to Columbia County.”
And Aiken continues to be a growing community that McCully insists cannot be ignored.
“We had a customer just last week, he had just finished the construction of a new home in Woodside Plantation in Aiken,” McCully said. “This is his last house. A wealthy man, retired from the financial district in New York, bought his property, built the house and moved down. Now, he is shopping. He is looking for a gorgeous grill for his backyard. He is looking for kayaks for the pond he lives on. He wanted to know the best fishing shop to buy rods and reels.
“I mean that is the kind of customer we all dream of. It is definitely happening in the horse country around Aiken.”
The other growing group of consumers for his business is the number of contractors and military personnel who have come to the Augusta area because of the expansion at Fort Gordon, he said.
“That has been very good for us. We see a direct result from that,” McCully said. “These are customers who again, buy big because this is where they will be for a while and they want to be comfortable.”
Therefore, a store in downtown Augusta made complete sense for his business, McCully said.
“In my eight years here, downtown feels better to me than it ever has before,” McCully said, sitting at one of his patio tables on display inside his store. “When you look at what Sean Wight has done with the building that houses his restaurants, Farmhaus and Craft & Vine, and what Mark Donahue has done with this building, those are people who are willing to step up and do something right for downtown. People who are making a building presentable for businesses and for residents for the long haul.”
The only major complaint McCully has about downtown is the city’s decision last year not to renew a special tax district in the downtown area that funded the Clean Augusta Downtown Initiative or CADI program.
“I think getting rid of CADI was a massive mistake. CADI needs to come back yesterday,” he said. “We clean our own sidewalks. We clean our own windows. We clean everything around our store. We feel it is very important. My neighbors don’t, so I clean their windows for them.”
But it gets to a point where the city must take a responsibility for the trash along Broad Street, McCully said.
“We can keep our sidewalks clean, but it is not realistic for the city administrator or the Augusta Commission to expect business owners to keep the gutters and the street clean. That’s ridiculous,” McCully said. “The city has got to do a better job of cleaning up downtown, and not just two weeks before and the one week after Masters.”
Despite what some people say about downtown Augusta, McCully insists the future is extremely bright for Broad Street.
“If the critics would come here and look around, they would realize that they are just plain wrong,” McCully said, adding that downtown Augusta simply needs the support of the entire community. “I think it is a shame, and maybe even a travesty, that Columbia County seems to be so proud of pulling things away from Richmond County. We are one community and we should be as proud of one as we are of the other.”
As a Richmond County resident, McCully says he takes great pride in the fact that Columbia County offers the Lady Antebellum Amphitheatre in Evans.
“So I don’t understand Columbia County’s resistance to having an appreciation for the green space in the middle of downtown Augusta, just a block from a beautiful river,” McCully said. “I encourage everyone to open their minds and attend events downtown and not badmouth them because, really, the mindset and the paradigm of the general public is probably the biggest issue downtown has.
“They believe downtown Augusta is something it hasn’t been for a while.”
For Sean Wight, owner of Farmhaus Burgers, Craft & Vine and Frog Hollow Tavern on Broad Street, downtown Augusta has always been a place with great potential.
“I spent a lot of time here in my youth,” said Wight, who purchased his building along the 1200 block of Broad Street from Merry’s Trash and Treasures in 2012 and has done extensive renovations over the past several years. “I wanted to be a part of the revitalization and growth of downtown because I think every successful city has to have a heart to it and I think the heart of Augusta is downtown. It just needs a little bit of medicine to get pumping back the right way.”
Much like many downtown property owners, Wight believes one of the keys to the future success of downtown Augusta is easy access to parking for patrons.
“I think it is all tied into parking,” he said. “If we can get the parking situation taken care of down here and have a future plan for growth, then you are going to see major retailers come in and that is going to change the face of downtown.”
But such improvements will require a commitment from the city of Augusta, Wight says.
“We need a city government that is willing to invest in the future of downtown,” Wight said, adding that the city needs to build some parking decks directly on Broad Street. “When we get major retailers here, downtown will become a destination. Right now, we have got a lot of places to eat and drink, but very few places to shop.”
So, while many developers and property owners like himself are putting a great deal of money into the downtown area, Wight believes the city of Augusta has to step up to the plate, too.
“There has to be a good relationship between the city and property owners downtown.
We have to invest in our future,” he said. “They have to quit being so shortsighted and look down the road 20 years and invest in parking, the cleanliness of the streets and the safety of downtown.”
Overall, Wight insists that Augusta is safer than most cities throughout the South, but he acknowledges that the public’s perception is that downtown is dangerous.
“The reality is downtown is safe,” Wight said. “I would walk downtown Augusta way before I would walk downtown Atlanta. But, whenever there is a shooting or something bad happens, the media reports say, ‘There was a shooting in downtown on 12th Street.’ But it is not 12th and Broad or 12th and Greene, it is way down the line on the other side of Walton Way. So that doesn’t help with the perception of downtown.”
In order to combat those negative views of downtown, Augusta needs to be more patron friendly, Wight said.
“There is no reason why we couldn’t be another Greenville, S.C., or have a Charleston’s King Street-type atmosphere all the way downtown,” Wight added. “But the city really needs to spend some money and buy up some of these vacant and dilapidated properties and put in some parking decks. Because we are never going to grow until we get parking down here. That’s just a fact.”
While the city of Augusta constructed a $12 million parking deck on Reynolds Street directly across from the Augusta Convention Center in 2011, Wight believes the six-level, 230,000-square-foot garage has no impact on the parking problems along upper Broad Street.
“It is too far,” Wight said of the Reynolds Street parking deck. “We live in the South. We are not a metropolitan area like New York or bigger cities where people are used to walking six blocks. They just don’t do it here. One major factor is also the heat in the summertime. You just have to have convenient, safe parking for people coming downtown.”
The city also has to invest in the appearance of downtown, Wight said.
“I think the 13th Street Bridge is a perfect example of taking responsibility for the way your town looks,” he said. “If drive across the river to North Augusta, it is beautifully landscaped. You turn around and come back to the Garden City and what do you see when you come over 13th Street Bridge and pull onto the main artery of the heart of Augusta and Broad Street? Let’s be honest, it looks like crap.
“We are the Garden City. We need to look like it.”
When Augustans describe downtown as “dead” these days, Soul Bar and Sky City co-owner Coco Rubio can’t help but simply shake his head and chuckle.
“We opened up Soul Bar coming up on 19 years ago,” Rubio said. “It was October of 1995, and, to me, that was really when Augusta was dead. It had bottomed out. There were a lot of empty buildings and there was not much going on at night at the upper end of Broad Street.”
Back then, after the work crowd packed up for the evening and headed off to the suburbs, downtown Augusta really was a ghost town.
The only places hopping downtown were strip clubs like Discotheque and the Marine Room, Rubio said.
“The strip clubs definitely brought some people out,” Rubio said, laughing. “So it made me think that if there was something available that people wanted to do, they would come downtown to see it.”
So, in 1995, when most Augustans were afraid to walk downtown after sunset, Rubio came across a vacant storefront at 984 Broad Street that needed a lot of work.
At the time, Historic Augusta owned the building and the rent was only a few hundred dollars a month with an option to buy. It was an opportunity that Rubio could not pass up.
Rubio partnered with his younger brother, Jayson, who had just graduated from the University of Georgia in 1994, and together they poured time, money and a lot of heart into the building.
With that, Soul Bar was born.
Meanwhile, two of Rubio’s friends, Barry Blackston and Matt Flynn, were working hard to open a restaurant, Nacho Mama’s, just a few doors down.
When Nacho Mama’s opened a few months later, the two new businesses fed off of each other’s positive energy, Rubio said.
Not long after the Soul Bar and Nacho Mama’s began enjoying some success, other businesses such as The Pizza Joint and Firehouse began to open in downtown Augusta.
“Little by little it was obvious people were opening small, independent businesses and that’s what we were hoping would happen,” Rubio said. “That was the goal.”
Now, almost 20 years later, Rubio is greatly encouraged by the number of restaurants, bars and apartments that have popped up all along Broad Street.
“In 1995, when there wasn’t anything going on, you could park anywhere on Broad Street at night because there wasn’t anybody coming downtown,” Rubio said. “Today, there is a lot going on, more than ever before in terms of restaurants, entertainment, bars and residential apartments. And I think it is going to continue to get better.”
Rubio believes a major “game changer” will be the future investment of Georgia Regents University in the downtown area.
“I really do think that GRU holds the key to the future of downtown Augusta,” Rubio said, adding he was encouraged to hear that GRU is interested in developing the former Augusta Golf and Gardens property along the Savannah River. “I see the potential there with GRU having college students possibly taking classes downtown, living downtown and having a presence downtown. I think that will be a big boost and I can’t wait to see that happen.”
GRU has the potential of being a positive influence on downtown Augusta, much like Savannah College of Art and Design has transformed downtown Savannah, Rubio said.
“That’s the kind of thing that we need to see in Augusta,” Rubio said. “Because there are already a lot of exciting things happening downtown. I look at the new restaurants that have opened up in the last few years and I have seen them stay very busy. Places like Farmhaus and, oh my God, Craft &Vine, that is a world-class eatery that could be in any city in the world.”
Clearly, Sean Wight has extremely “good taste” and understands the restaurant business, inside and out, Rubio said.
“To me, what Sean Wight is doing is really encouraging because it shows me that people see the potential here and they are willing to invest in downtown,” he said. “That is progress.”
Weekends in downtown Augusta are far from dead these days, Rubio said.
“First Friday used to be really busy and that was the busiest night of the month for us,” Rubio said. “But now, every Friday is busy and I’d prefer that to having just one busy First Friday and then a slow month the rest of the time. We now have busy Fridays and Saturdays every week.”
In June 2008, the Rubio brothers teamed up with Eric Kinlaw, owner of the downtown tapas bar The Bee’s Knees on 10th Street, to purchase the 500-person capacity, live music venue at 1157 Broad Street called Sky City.
Since opening, Sky City has showcased hundreds of local bands and attracted some big-time national acts including Fishbone, Drive-By Truckers, Jucifer, Dinosaur Jr. and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
But, unfortunately, not many people know about some of the wonderful, new restaurants or exciting events in Augusta because there is very little promotion of the downtown area, Rubio said.
“I’ve never seen a commercial or billboard on Washington Road during Masters Week that says, ‘Come downtown,’” Rubio said. “I have never seen any promotion from the Downtown Development Authority that would show people, ‘We want you to come downtown and we are going to make it a good experience for you.’”
A little positive promotion would go a long way, Rubio said.
“To me, it just makes me wonder, isn’t that what the DDA is supposed to do? Who’s responsibility is that?” Rubio asked. “Maybe that’s not what they are supposed to do. Maybe they just do studies on parking meters. I don’t know, but I think they could promote downtown more effectively.
“Just promote it, promote it, promote it and promote it some more. We need to get the word out.”
Mellow Mushroom owner Shawn Ledford agrees that downtown Augusta needs a little boost from positive publicity.
“Public perception is huge,” said Ledford, who opened downtown Augusta’s Mellow Mushroom in April 2003. “I think that’s the DDA’s responsibility. They need to work on a new personality or creating a new perception of downtown with radio ads or positive ads in the paper.”
Positive word of mouth can go a long way, Ledford said.
“I think the DDA would get more support if they would do some positive things rather than always be in an argument with someone,” he said.
However, Ledford does agree with the DDA when it comes to its efforts to find ways to improve parking in the downtown area.
“We need new sidewalks, we need new lighting, we need a whole new streetscape and we need to tackle the parking problem,” Ledford said, adding he wished he had an easy solution for parking downtown. “I know it is going to sound selfish, but there is a building directly across the street from Mellow Mushroom. I guess it was the original Sky City (shopping center). I think that would be a great Broad Street opportunity for a parking deck.”
If the city of Augusta would improve the parking situation, Ledford believes the public would be much less concerned about crime in downtown Augusta.
“Everybody is concerned about safety, but I haven’t had any safety issues in the 11 years that I’ve been down there and I’d leave pretty late at night,” Ledford said. “But I can definitely see that it is dark along Broad Street at night. The lighting needs to be updated and I do know that if the perception was that it’s safe to walk from the parking deck to Broad Street, people would definitely use it.”
Parking would also vastly increase Augusta’s chances of getting a national retail chain in the downtown area, he said.
“I would love to see some retail with a national name or even a regional name come to downtown Augusta,” Ledford said. “Someone kind of like us.”
In 1974, Mellow Mushroom was created by three college students in Atlanta interested in starting a restaurant featuring “classic southern pizza.” These days, the franchise exists in 18 states with more than 140 stores.
“We are a franchise, but we are not your cookie-cutter franchise,” Ledford said. “We still have personality and take on the local community. I would like to see something like that in retail come to downtown Augusta.”
After all, Ledford said his love of downtown Augusta and its originality is what encouraged him to bring Mellow Mushroom to Broad Street.
“I was actually living on Broad Street when I first came to Augusta,” he said. “I worked for a construction company in Thomson, and I lived on the same block that the restaurant is now located. And so, I really liked downtown Augusta.”
When Ledford opened the restaurant in 2003, he thought the charm of downtown was going to cause new businesses to quickly spread all along Broad Street.
“In 2003, I knew that there were some bad areas of downtown Augusta and definitely a lot of room for improvement, but I still thought it was charming,” he said. “I loved the big multiple lanes on Broad Street. It was just attractive to me.”
At the time, Ledford said he was also encouraged by the number of people wanting to live downtown.
“When I opened the business, I wanted there to be foot traffic downtown,” Ledford said. “Of course, there hasn’t been as much foot traffic as I wanted over the last 10 years. In fact, I was hoping there would be 100 more people living downtown in apartments than there are now.
“I thought we were really moving in that direction with the apartments that were already there, but it’s taken longer than I thought and that is why the retail is really not there yet.”
But if downtown can solve its parking problems and attract some strong retail business, Ledford believes it will continue to spark major growth on Broad Street.
“I think we are moving in a positive direction,” Ledford said. “I know my business has grown every single year since we opened in 2003, so that’s saying a lot.
“There is no doubt about it. Downtown Augusta has been a good choice for us.”