Almost exactly 15 years ago, the Augusta Commission made sure that residents knew they weren’t allowed to consume alcohol in city-owned parks, playgrounds and, more importantly, public streets.
At the time, the Augusta Commission’s primary concern was people walking around downtown with open containers of alcohol.
In fact, some individuals were even reportedly heading downtown to enjoy First Friday with a keg full of beer in the trunk of their car.
No kidding. An entire keg in their trunk.
Therefore, the approval of the 2003 ordinance meant no one would be allowed to carry an open container of beer, wine or liquor while walking along Broad Street on First Friday, or any other day of the week.
Now, 15 years later, the Augusta Commission has decided it wants to take another look at that ordinance.
City leaders approved a proposal led by Commissioner Sean Frantom to develop a subcommittee to study creating an entertainment district downtown.
One possible change to the city’s ordinance that this subcommittee will be reviewing is whether Augusta businesses should be allowed to provide their customers “to-go” alcoholic drinks in a plastic cup when they leave a bar or restaurant.
Frantom told his colleagues this summer that allowing to-go cups for patrons as they walk around downtown or head to evening concerts or shows would appeal to the millennials moving to Augusta for Cyber Command and various tech jobs.
Well, Augusta will have to wait and see what the subcommittee recommends, but it was interesting to go back and hear the reasoning city leaders gave back in 2003 for banning open containers of alcohol on the streets.
Specifically, the Augusta Commission said it approved the ban because the ordinance had been reviewed by its then-downtown advisory panel, who supported prohibiting open containers of alcohol.
Back in 2003, the downtown advisory panel was actually a pretty diverse group with members such as Michael Schepis, owner of the Pizza Joint; Bryan Mitchell, the former owner of The Cotton Patch restaurant; Joe Smith, owner of the Brass Ring store; WAGT-TV Channel 26 General Manager John Mann and the Rev. Mark Harris of Curtis Baptist Church on Broad Street.
Harris, who now is ironically running for Congress in North Carolina, said the reason the advisory panel felt this ordinance was important was that the group studied several other surrounding municipalities and they all deemed downtown regulations of alcohol as a crucial key to the growth of their city.
“We studied Asheville, North Carolina; Greenville, South Carolina; and even Atlanta,” Harris said. “Every area had an alcohol ordinance in place.”
(Boy, times have really changed in those cities, as well.)
But Harris said that everyone on the panel wanted to make sure that First Friday and any other occasion downtown was safe for people of all ages.
“To be real honest with you, I have been fascinated by the work that this group has been able to come together and do,” Harris said of the downtown advisory panel back in 2003. “Whenever you get myself, who’s a clergy, and Bryan Mitchell (formerly) of The Cotton Patch together on the same team, and we find ourselves sitting down and being able to talk and being able to understand that we have a common vision and that is to make Augusta, Georgia be the absolute the best it can be … I’m extremely excited about the potential of that.”
However, not everyone agreed with the downtown advisory panel back in 2003.
For example, Brad Owens, who owned a downtown business at the time, told Augusta commissioners that if they passed the open-container ordinance, they would be supporting a “useless” law.
“What’s wrong with law-abiding citizens walking down the street in Augusta, Georgia, and having a beer,” Owens said back in 2003, adding that he and his friends often enjoy a beer and a chat outside his business on Eighth Street. “We sit out in front of my shop all the time, late into the evening, drinking beer and talking, kind of like the old Southside Mafia.”
Several commissioners chuckled when Owens compared himself and his friends to the once extremely powerful and highly influential group of south Augusta politicians known as the Southside Mafia that was formed in the late 1950s.
Owens told commissioners that there already were laws on the books to prevent people from engaging in disorderly conduct, public drunkenness and loitering, so he didn’t see the need for the commission to prevent responsible adults from enjoying an alcoholic beverage as they walk downtown.
“I like to have fun,” Owens said in 2003. “But the point is, I can’t sit out in front of my own business now if you pass this ordinance and have a beer because that would be breaking the law.”
Only time will tell as to what the commission will decide now that it’s 2018.
After all, 15 years is a lifetime ago.