When locals walked by the former Planned Parenthood building on Broad Street this past week, they saw something peculiar: A notice of a public hearing regarding an alcohol license.
That’s not something you see every day at that location.
Word on the street is that the former Planned Parenthood building is scheduled to be demolished and the owners of a new nightclub called The Scene are pushing to open by Masters Week.
While most insiders say that such a quick turnaround for a nightclub would be virtually impossible, the public hearing regarding the on-premise, consumption liquor, beer, wine and dance license will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 28, at 1 p.m. in the Municipal Building.
The license request has drawn a lot of attention for a number of reasons.
Obviously, trying to tear down a building and construct an entirely new building and get all the proper permitting before Masters Week would take a great deal of money and an enormous amount of political influence.
The second concern is the location. There is no doubt about it, people have mixed feelings about having a nightclub in the former location of a Planned Parenthood. Take from that what you will.
Finally, some people have wondered about the fact that the former Planned Parenthood building is located not far from Curtis Baptist Church.
A few Augustans are wondering if Curtis Baptist will object to a nightclub being established near their front door.
Now, you might be asking, “If it meets the city’s distance requirements, what’s the problem?”
Well, there is a little history regarding Curtis Baptist Church and requested alcohol licenses.
In October 2000, the late local businessman Julian Osbon was forced to battle the highly influential Curtis Baptist Church on Broad Street over a request for an alcohol license involving a restaurant called Off Broadway Dining & Dancing.
While Osbon was not directly involved in the restaurant, he owned the property that housed Off Broadway located at 1285 Broad Street.
Just to give you a reference point, the former Planned Parenthood building is located at 1289 Broad Street. So it is closer to the church than the proposed restaurant, Off Broadway, was in 2000.
During the first public hearing about the requested alcohol license, more than 100 members of Curtis Baptist packed the commission chambers demanding the license be rejected because it was a threat to the congregation’s safety.
At the time, the church was led by Pastor Mark Harris, a very spirited and confident speaker who seemed to have a great deal of influence over the members of the Augusta Commission.
Osbon attempted to explain to the commission in October 2000 that Off Broadway was not a threat to the church because it was to be an upscale restaurant.
“This is basically for an older crowd,” Osbon told commissioners. “And if they are like me, they are going to be in bed, asleep by 10 o’clock anyway.”
But for weeks, Curtis Baptist waged a war against Osbon and Off Broadway.
Speaking out against any church’s wishes was an unusual position for Osbon.
After all, Osbon was no stranger to religion. His grandfather was the founder of Augusta’s Church of God on Crawford Avenue, as well as two other churches in South Carolina.
And his father, who died in 1986 at age 85, “lived” his religion by routinely reading the Bible every morning and every night before he went to bed.
“For about 40 years, my father read the entire Bible once a year because that’s what he just liked doing,” Osbon said in 2000. “My father was probably the most religious man I’ve ever known.”
That’s why, with such a long family history in religion, Osbon was surprised during the alcohol license debate to discover two messages on his answering machine from an anonymous woman calling him a sinner.
“Mr. Osbon, you will do anything for money,” the woman on the answering machine said. “But you know there is a verse in the Bible that condemns this. There is a curse on you for doing this and I’m going to read it to you: ‘Woe unto him that giveth his neighbor drink. That putteth they bottle to him. And maketh him drunk.’”
At the time, Osbon simply shook his head, smiled and said, “I think that is the Southern interpretation of the Bible.”
But Osbon refused to back down from the fight because he knew in his heart he was doing what was right, not only for Off Broadway, but for the entire downtown area.
“I’ve also received a letter at home from somebody; it’s unsigned, and it starts off ‘Dear sick soul.’ They said they are praying for me,” Osbon said in 2000. “That stuff is kind of funny, but some people walk on the edge of reality and you can push them one way or the other with situations like this. And sometimes those people are just marginally functional, so you don’t know what they are up to and why.”
But he insisted that notes on his door and messages on his machine were not going to stop him from supporting Judy Tyler, the restaurant’s owner.
“I can totally sympathize with the mission of Curtis Baptist and where they are coming from, but I totally disagree with them,” Osbon said in 2000. “If this restaurant is put into place and the lady doesn’t do what she is supposed to do, or, as the landowner, I don’t do what I’m supposed to do, then we should be held accountable for it. But don’t try to micromanage my life and the community.”
During the debate, he had faith that the Augusta Commission would do the honorable thing and approve the alcohol license, which was already supported by the city’s license and inspection department and the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office.
“Hopefully, elected officials don’t respond to mob rule,” Osbon said in 2000. “I don’t want something done down at the commission because you bring enough people and they cave in. That’s a frightening way to run a community.”
He expected the commission to do what was “right for the entire community.”
“My philosophy in life is that you try to focus on the things that you can do something about,” Osbon said in 2000. “So I’m not going to let the church dictate the way I run this property.”
Unfortunately, Osbon had too much faith in the then-sitting Augusta Commission.
Despite the fact that the restaurant was more than 840 feet from the church, which was well beyond the city’s distance requirements for an approved alcohol license from a place of worship, the Augusta Commission voted 6-4 in 2000 to deny the restaurant’s application for a liquor license, as well as a dance hall license.
“I’ve been approached by many other businesspeople in the community very concerned that what happens here may affect the long-term use of all the properties downtown,” Osbon said in 2000. “One told me if you eliminate all the liquor licenses in downtown Augusta, you might as well put a fire to it, because downtown would be gone.”
In the end, the commission would only allow the restaurant to have a beer and wine license, but no liquor license or Sunday sales.
Osbon was outraged, to say the least.
“Today, Augusta moved a little closer toward insignificance,” he said in 2000. “It was agonizing to watch in disbelief as six commissioners — Jerry Brigham, Ulmer Bridges, Andy Cheek, Richard Colclough, Willie Mays and Marion Williams — drove a stake into the heart of revitalization for downtown Augusta and the city in general.”
In a letter to the editor published in the Metro Spirit in October 2000, Osbon did not hold his tongue.
“The six (commissioners) parked their municipal responsibility along with their spines outside the commission chamber door as they caved in to the onslaught of religious prejudice,” Osbon wrote. “In denying a business license to a new upscale restaurant in downtown Augusta that wanted to serve beverage choices other than sweet or unsweet tea, they demonstrated once again that Augusta needs elected leaders who don’t think that the ultimate in fine dining is found at the Waffle House.”
The entire commission hearing was like watching sheep being herded into the “slaughterhouse of ignorance,” Osbon wrote.
“It’s becoming an embarrassment to be from Augusta. I thought this kind of intolerance went out with the Middle Ages,” Osbon stated. “For every great opportunity there is a window. Augusta’s opportunity to be a significant player in our region during the next 50 years is being squandered by an incompetent government and religious zealots.”
“With the political leadership we have today our descension into the annals of mediocrity is all but a certainty,” he added.
It was a sad day for Augusta.
Now, almost 20 years later, we’ll see what this new request for an alcohol license will bring.
Has Augusta grown up?
Will a nightclub at the former Planned Parenthood location be approved?
Stay tuned, folks.