As Broad Street continues to grow, it is interesting to take a look back a mere six years ago. In June of 2014 Augusta Commissioner Grady Smith nominated Bonnie Ruben to the city’s Urban Redevelopment Agency. There were some upset people in downtown Augusta who felt she was holding downtown’s future back with her large abandoned buildings.
On June 20th, 2014, a week after this piece ran, crews busily painted the exterior of the building and added fresh plywood, to keep prying eyes out.
The drone footage of the building was quite a revelation at the time.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
This story is from June of 2014.
Restaurants on the upper end of Broad Street such as Farmhaus Burgers, Nacho Mama’s, Mellow Mushroom and Whiskey Bar Kitchen will often have lines out the door during lunchtime.
Meanwhile, on the other end of Broad, residents from Richmond Summit linger outside the Section 8 apartment complex, often asking pedestrians walking by for spare change.
An exciting new high-end convenience store called Metro Market will soon open its doors to offer quick sandwiches, craft beers, fresh scoops of ice cream and gourmet hot dogs in a newly renovated space next to the Augusta Common on Broad Street.
On the lower end of Broad, vacant, boarded-up buildings are scattered along both sides of the street next to businesses desperately trying to attract customers.
This is the story of Broad Street.
“As you can see, you can walk for a while and see a very vibrant downtown,” said Margaret Woodard, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, as she strolled along Broad Street, pausing for a moment by the former Broad Street Bazaar on 1100 block of Broad Street. “And then all of sudden you will see a big ol’ gap with a vacant building or two.”
Just last year, the DDA signed a three-year contract with an Alabama-based retail consultant, Retail Strategies LLC, to study Augusta’s downtown, develop a market analysis and recruit potential retailers for the area.
The contract is estimated to cost approximately $60,000, but at least half has been funded through private dollars.
“We have finished phase one of the retail strategy which was a full properties report,” Woodard said. “I have gotten every single available property listed. In the next step, Retail Strategies is reaching out to the property owners and engaging them by saying, ‘Let’s get some better retail downtown.’”
But for some property owners who have been on Broad Street for several decades, the retail business in downtown Augusta seems like a bad joke.
“When I first got married, my husband and I lived on Miami Beach,” said Bonnie Ruben, who has run her family business, Ruben’s Department Store on Broad Street, since 1979, and the Ramada Plaza since 1989. “I had an oceanfront condominium on Collins Avenue and I looked out on the ocean every day. I had a pool. I didn’t have to work. I didn’t have anything to do all day except shop and go to the beach.”
A glimpse inside the former Bayou bar and eatery, that was gutted by fire in 2001, located along the 900 block of Broad Street. This photo was taken in 2014. The building is owned by Bonnie Ruben.
Life seemed perfect, but one day Ruben said she woke up wondering what she could do to make her life even better.
“I realized I wanted to go back to Augusta because that has always been where my heart is,” Ruben said, sitting in her office in the Ramada Plaza. “So, in 1979, I started running the family business on Broad Street. But in the 1970s and ’80s, there was a mass exodus from downtown. All of the smart people moved away, while I was moving back.”
Ruben admits she was extremely naive about the future of downtown Augusta back then and the retail business.
“I thought by now I would have 500 retail stores,” Ruben said, laughing. “Instead, I have a dying downtown with no customers in a store where my employees are 90 years old because I can’t get anybody younger and there is nobody on the street to sell anything to.”
Some days, Ruben says she truly misses her view of Miami Beach.
“Now, I’m faced with the challenge of my life to reinvent my store, which is 116 years old,” Ruben said. “I have to get an internet presence and try to bring new and old together in an eclectic mix. It’s not easy.”
Ruben has been flirting with several ideas on how to promote her business, including possibly starting her own clothing line.
“I’m now trying to figure out a way to use our history and maybe have a clothing website with interesting facts about clothing each day,” Ruben said. “Everything from Fred Flintstone all the way up to the 1880s, or 1927 or 1952.”
Ruben says she is trying everything to become more “trendy,” but she believes her store’s main goal is still to provide quality service to people who have not always been treated with respect by large retail chains.
“Not everyone is rich. We understand that,” Ruben said. “So Ruben’s has catered to the middle-class person for decades, particularly the people in the black community. That is about 70 percent of our business. People who go to church, put things on layaway and like nicer clothes.”
In fact, some customers have been known to have items on layaway for several years at Ruben’s.
“We had a mink coat on layaway once for 12 years,” Ruben said. “She paid like $5 to $10 a month. Sometimes a little more if she got some Christmas money and we held it for her. That’s the kind of service you get at Ruben’s.
“But all of our customers, unfortunately, are moving to the cemetery. So, what am I supposed to do? It is like you are between a rock and a hard place.”
Despite Ruben’s struggle to attract new customers to her businesses, city leaders apparently still have great confidence in her ability as a downtown property owner.
Just last week, the Augusta Commission unanimously appointed Ruben to the city’s Urban Redevelopment Agency, which is a body established to issue a $28.5 million revenue bond to finance the Municipal Building’s ongoing renovations.
However, the URA may also soon be asked to broaden its scope to projects that could redevelop Augusta’s downtown area.
The Metro Spirit’s own Insider column last week questioned the commission’s decision to appoint Ruben to the URA board since she owns two large downtown buildings that have sat vacant for several decades: the former J.C. Penney Co. building and the former Kress building on Broad Street.
Ruben took great exception to the comments in last week’s Insider column, claiming it was “totally unfair.”
“Yes, I own the J.C. Penney building and the Kress building and they are vacant, but the other buildings I own have tenants,” Ruben said. “And here, damn, when I reach my senior years and invest so much time and energy, sincerely, in downtown and I’m going to be criticized for two vacant buildings? An old building is an old building. That’s all it is.”
A view of the Top of the J.C. Penney building on Broad Street.
The reason Ruben says she purchased both the Kress and Penney buildings is because she appreciates the history of Broad Street and wanted to put life back into the projects.
“Obviously, I love those buildings,” Ruben said. “The J.C. Penney building has a long, rich history here. It could be a wonderful story to bring out when it could be renovated for a tenant. But one building cannot turn downtown around. And, the truth is, no other developer is stepping up and saying, ‘Please can we do this,’ because I have been looking for development partners everywhere. They don’t exist.”
Therefore, Ruben insists she has no choice but to board up the vacant properties.
“I’m not some absentee landowner who is holding onto those ‘filthy, nasty, empty buildings’ waiting for someone to come and pay huge dollars for them,” Ruben said, shaking her head. “Sure. When is that going to be? Come on. There are no big dollars on Broad Street.”
By owning the Kress and Penney buildings, Ruben says she is losing money every year.
“You don’t keep the old buildings on Broad Street because you are waiting to make a huge profit. That won’t happen,” she said. “To put a new roof on the 80,000-square-foot J.C. Penney building about four years ago, it cost me about $120,000. I don’t get any return on my investment. There is nobody renting the building. What property owner wants to have a building and maintain its upkeep without some rental income?”
It’s a no-win situation, Ruben said.
“So, I am a frustrated, high-achiever because I’ve always wanted to develop these buildings myself,” she said. “But I’m not a magician and I’m not Bill Gates and I don’t have unlimited funds. To be honest, it is hard enough just keeping our two businesses going.”
Just this year, Ruben said she is celebrating her 25th anniversary as owner of the Ramada Plaza on Broad Street.
“Before I became the owner of this property, there were 25 other previous owners because no one could make it work,” Ruben said. “It is not the Ritz-Carlton or the W Hotel that I would like it to be, but I’m still here. That consistency, longevity and dedication goes a long way.”
And Ruben says she is always looking at opportunities to improve her hotel.
“I would like this to be a boutique hotel,” Ruben said. “I have been working on that for the last three years. But I’ve called W Hotels and Starwood Hotels. They don’t want to come to this market. Hilton won’t come back to this market. Aloft Hotels doesn’t want to come this market. And I can’t make them to come to this market.”
The back of the J.C. Penney building, showing windows that are opened and the structure is not properly mothballed.
At times, Ruben feels like she is beating her head against a wall, especially when people criticize her businesses.
“So, you don’t think my product is up to par?” Ruben asked. “I would dare anybody else to step in my shoes and see if they could run a 35,000-square-foot retail department store and a 200-room hotel on Broad Street and still survive. I have about 34 employees here at the Ramada and probably about 15 in the store. I challenge that to anyone.”
With that, Ruben brings out a large key chain with dozens of keys and tosses them on her desk.
“Whoever would like to do it, here are the keys,” Ruben said. “But if they are going to do it, you have got to put your money where your mouth is because that is what I’ve done. I’ve invested my hard earned dollars and I work about 80 hours a week to do this. This is no easy job.”
Paul King, owner of Rex Property & Land, LLC, understands better than anyone in Augusta some of the issues facing property owners in the downtown area.
For the past 30 years, his company has invested in downtown.
“We started our business in 1985 and we continue to invest in downtown,” King said from his offices on Greene Street. “Our single largest active project is currently the JB White’s Building and the condominiums there continue to sell.”
With the DDA announcing last year that the demand for residential housing in the downtown area is extremely strong with a 96-percent occupancy rate, King said one of the main reasons people are interested in the JB White’s Building is because it addresses two major issues facing those living on Broad Street.
“The people living in the JB White’s Building have parking, because it comes with deeded parking, and they have security,” King said. “We address both of those issues with our projects.”
While King realizes how sensitive the issue of parking is for many people in the downtown community, he insists it is a problem that Augusta is going to have to face.
“The lack of parking management is my No. 1 point that is preventing really deep and impressive downtown development,” King said. “It is a huge problem. Especially between the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. along the 900 block of Broad, which I call it ‘the blockade.’ It makes it extremely difficult to attract a competitive retail mix into downtown Augusta.”
Earlier this year, Woodard announced that she plans to bring a proposal for parking meters in the downtown area back before the Augusta Commission this summer.
King said he was “hopeful” about the proposal, but has seen first-hand exactly how passionate people are about downtown parking.
“I remember I got spit on the last time the DDA brought it up,” King said. “Literally. It’s a true story. I just can’t tell you how strongly people feel about it. Augusta is slow to change.”
Another problem facing the downtown area is the city’s unwillingness to address the trash along the streets, curbs, sidewalks and gutters, King said.
“If you come down here Sunday to go anywhere, it’s gross,” King said. In 2013, the Augusta Commission voted against renewing a special tax district in the downtown area that funded the Clean Augusta Downtown Initiative or CADI program. “The city killed this program with no backup,” King said. “They threw the baby out with the bathwater. And there are a lot of different options out there. But doing nothing is a poor option.”
The entire county’s lack of quality public transportation also has a major impact on the downtown area, King said.
“I’m a big backer of streetcars,” King said. “Recently, Columbus, Ga., put in a streetcar system using federal dollars that Augusta decided to pass on. I’m not happy that I’m paying for Columbus’ system and not ours.”
Providing streetcars that would connect the downtown area to the medical community would be a huge boost to downtown, King said.
“If you had a system that went back and forth on the same track but connected the old depot/pension property — which is the undeveloped, city-owned property on Reynolds Street — to the medical community, I bet $1,000 there would be a huge development plan within 12 months,” King said. “I think it would be great for downtown Augusta.”
Parking, cleanliness and transportation are the keys to Augusta’s future success, King said.
“Of course, the vacant buildings are a problem, too,” King said. “There is also a solution for that. Other cities instituted a vacant building tax. After all, what is more likely to burn down? A vacant building or an occupied building? I would say a vacant building.
“What is more likely to attract crime? A vacant building. These property owners with these vacant buildings should have to pay a higher tax rate.”
And King will be the first to admit, his company also has a vacant building in the downtown area.
“We would be willing to pay the vacant building tax, too,” King said. “Now, we haven’t had it for 20 years, but my point is, if you want to have a vacant building as an investment, part of your plan should be, how am I going to pay these extra taxes? Because, right now, everyone else in Augusta is subsidizing that vacant building.”
In no way is he pointing fingers at one downtown developer and blaming them for the problems on Broad Street, King said.
“I will say this, Bonnie Ruben is an investor in downtown Augusta and I sincerely appreciate that,” King said. “But no matter who owns a large, vacant building downtown, they need to be taxed. If you want less of something, tax it. So I think we should tax vacant buildings. If you want more of something, like development, you need to support it.”
If downtown Augusta can get those issues ironed out, King said the sky is the limit.
“The bones are there, we just can’t get the meat on it,” King said, explaining that Augusta is blessed with a beautiful canal and river that provides this area with one of the most valuable resources in the South. “Our water needs to be protected because Atlanta wants it.”
Despite some of the negative publicity that Richmond County receives, King insists it is an incredible community.
“In Richmond County, we have the best schools in the state,” King said. “If your child is of average ability, you should live in Columbia County. If your child is excellent, you should live in Richmond County, where they will be challenged in the best schools in the state.
“I push back on all the real estate agents that talk about Columbia County having the best schools. Columbia County has nothing like Davidson (Fine Arts Magnet School).”
Augusta is also blessed to have beautiful buildings and a nice grid system in the downtown area, King said.
“Somebody put some thought into that grid system way back when,” King said. “In fact, the people who have done the key developments in Augusta in our past like laying out the downtown grid and building the canal, they weren’t held back because it hadn’t been done before.
“Because those things are here, we have Fort Gordon, we have the government, we have the private sector, we have the medical community. We have everything we need, except courage.”
Back at the Ramada Plaza, Ruben can’t agree enough that the city needs to step up to the plate and clean up the downtown area, improve transit downtown and deal with the parking situation. But she also believes that Augusta needs more than just restaurants, loft apartments and bars to bring people downtown.
“I going to be criticized because I didn’t invest wisely enough and I should have done something with the Kress and the Penney building,” Ruben said. “Well, God knows, I worked with James Brown before his death, begging him to put a James Brown Museum in the Kress building.”
Not only does Ruben want to put a museum in the former Kress Building, she also wants to establish a James Brown Memorial Square.
“I think we should bury James Brown in the Augusta Common,” Ruben said. “That is one of the things that I have been trying to get people on board with but I haven’t had any luck.”
Ever since the Godfather of Soul passed away in December 2006, downtown Augusta hasn’t properly recognized the significance of his legacy throughout the music industry and the world, Ruben said.
“If we could just bury James Brown in the Augusta Common, which isn’t used for much else, and have an eternal flame like the Kennedy Memorial with a 24-hour guard watching over it and make the 800 block of Broad Street an entertainment block, people would come from all over to visit his gravesite,” Ruben said. “It would be better than Elvis Presley.”
In her heart, Ruben says she deeply believes that is the kind of recognition that Brown would want from downtown Augusta.
“He was a great guy,” Ruben said of Brown. “I knew him because he used to rent a building from me. I went to his wedding and his band used to practice at the hotel before he went on the road. He also used to come in Ruben’s to buy things for the guys’ band uniforms.”
Ruben said they would often have conversations about the future of downtown Augusta.
“James really did spend more time on Broad Street than anywhere else,” Ruben said. “That was always the bond between us. We talked about his vision for downtown because he loved downtown.”
That’s why Ruben thinks Brown would have supported a museum and square established in his honor.
“Just think about how fantastic it would be to have a James Brown Museum in the Kress building,” Ruben said. “It could have had a recording studio for new artists to come and try out new stuff, it could have had a club, it could have had a restaurant in it and it could have had a rooftop bar.”
With the right publicist and promoter, Augusta could also establish a top-quality James Brown Soul and Blues Music Festival, Ruben said.
“We could make it like Woodstock. People could come for four or five days and listen to quality music in honor of James Brown,” Ruben said. “We could really make Augusta a spot on the map, known for both golf and James Brown.”
Ruben says she has discussed the proposal several times with Brown’s family, but she can never get the idea off the ground.
“Just think about the funeral ceremony we could have,” she said. “Almost a decade after the man has been deceased, he is finally getting the proper burial. And his hometown loves him.
“Maybe I’m crazy, but I really do think that would be a cool thing to do, for both James Brown and downtown Augusta.”
Otherwise, without a solid idea to promote downtown Augusta, Ruben fears that Broad Street will soon become a ghost town.
“If you walk outside right now, to the front of this hotel, you can see all the way down Broad Street,” Ruben said, around noon on a Friday. “You could shoot a cannon ball and you wouldn’t hit a soul because there is no foot traffic on Broad Street.”
As Woodard crosses a crowded Broad Street down by The Pizza Joint and Mellow Mushroom on that same Friday, she insists that the DDA is working hard to reach out to owners of vacant properties to bring possible tenants to the downtown area.
But those owners must be open to receiving the help offered, she said.
“Here is a perfect example of a great project,” Woodard said, as she points to 1033 Broad Street. “This is a new owner who purchased this building and the lot that goes right next to it. There are 10 apartments upstairs which are in good shape and he has three restaurant concepts in Clemson, S.C.. He is bringing one here. This will be a new sushi restaurant. And he planned ahead, because there will be parking in the rear and outdoor seating.”
Many downtown projects have been facilitated by the DDA through the Georgia Cities Loan Foundation. Projects approved by the DDA are eligible to borrow up to 40 percent of project costs at a below-market interest rate, Woodard explained.
In 2013, the DDA announced that $2.9 million in such loans had led directly to $30 million in private investment.
Just recently, the DDA also received a list of peer cities Augusta should look at to see how those areas have developed their downtowns.
The peer cities include Knoxville, Tenn., Fayetteville, N.C., Tallahassee, Fla., Birmingham, Ala. and Jackson, Miss.
Woodard says she hopes to visit Birmingham in the near future because she heard its downtown is thriving.
“What we are trying to do now is look at who is going into urban areas that necessarily would not go into an urban area before. Companies like Urban Outfitters,” Woodard said. “We are looking at who is franchising and expanding because we feel like downtown Augusta is now big enough to put in a regional chain.”
But Ruben isn’t convinced that Woodard and the DDA are actually steering Augusta in the right direction.
“We are wasting our money. That’s the bottom line,” Ruben said, adding she was disappointed to learn that the DDA raised Woodard’s salary to approximately $85,000 a year in 2013. “What are we getting in return for that? What positive revenue have we developed? I don’t see any accomplishments because there isn’t anything.”
For those downtown property owners who are willing to actively seek to improve their properties, King said DDA is an invaluable resource.
“I must say that we have always received good support from the DDA and I think Margaret is doing an outstanding job,” King said, chuckling. “Let’s face it, the city will never shut down the DDA, because who would they blame for everything?”
When the DDA brings the city of Augusta a solution to some of the problems facing the downtown area, King says the city often tells the DDA to “go away.”
“They love to kick the DDA because they won’t fix it themselves,” King said. “But I think the DDA is a great advocate for development. And the people who are developing downtown, the ones who actually do the work — myself, Bryan Haltermann, the Boardmans, Mark Donahue, and other folks popping up — you talk to those people who are actually bringing new money into the downtown, they love the DDA.”
They appreciate the DDA because it can provide developers with the tools to make their project successful, King said.
“You talk to the people who do nothing, I guess they are just bitter,” King said. “I hear people say things like, we are bad people because we use historic preservation tax credits. Well, the state and federal governments put those in place to encourage the kind of work that we do. So, yes, we use the tools that are provided. That’s just good business.”