Sunday, October 9, 2011

Historical Revisionism in Downtown Augusta?

Oct. 9, 2011
By The Outsider

The Augusta Chronicle had a very interesting read in Sunday's online edition by  Carole Hawkins titled: Downtown Augusta seeks tipping point. It seems like we have  heard this many times before. That downtown Augusta, with all its potential, just needs that spark to get going. It needs that "tipping point." What may surprise people is that despite all of the rosy rhetoric over the last several years about how downtown is on the upswing,  the number of businesses in the downtown district has actually decreased by 27% over the last decade. So it seems things are going backwards. Downtown is taking one step forward and two steps back, or at the very best it is staying put in status quo.

So, just what is the magic bullet that is needed for downtown revitalization? A riverfront esplanade with an amphitheater? The Riverwalk is nice, although not well maintained, but since opening 25 years ago, it doesn't appear it was the tipping point for revitalizing downtown like it was hoped to do.  A condo tower with an upscale mall with an exterior painted a peachy pink color? Been there done that, didn't work either. A children's science museum in the failed mall portion of the pink condo building? Ditto. It closed too. A new history museum? Check. Still no tipping point, but it has a leaky roof.

Well how about a hotel with a convention center? Got that covered. Still no tipping point yet.. maybe the convention center just needed to be bigger. Parking deck? A new one just opened. But the one that opened in the late 1970s didn't exactly attract cars or revitalization, and neither did the one at the hotel-convention center that this new one replaced. Maybe this one will be different and  the new gigantic 40,000 sqft TEE center (eyes rolling) will be the magic bullet.. the tipping point... the catalyst! Well we will have to wait and see but it doesn't look promising with not one convention booked in its opening year and in 2013 only one convention has been booked, and it has been to town before and used the smaller facility.

 Well what about a fancy tourist attraction to capitalize on Augusta's connection to professional golf? A Georgia Golf Hall of Fame and botanical gardens, yeah, that's the ticket! Well the state of Georgia and Augusta invested over $18 million of your tax dollars in that fantastic idea. Tipping point? More like weed patch. Yep, all that money and years later and all the city has to show for it is an expensive brick wall and a "Garden of Weedin'."

 So what's next on the horizon? What's the next tipping point for downtown? Well mayor Deke just hates seeing that monument to failure formerly known as the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame just sitting there growing weeds producing no tax revenue. So he wants to build a city financed "multi-use" baseball park on the site. Yeah, that's the ticket, another taxpayer financed boondoggle. But hey, did anyone tell mayor Deke that a city owned ballpark won't generate any property taxes on that site either? Uh oh.

Some will argue that there WAS a tipping point downtown, and it happened when Main Street Augusta was essentially shut-down and The Downtown Development Authority took over as the primary guiding force and trustee of tax dollars for downtown revitalization. Some people say that was a very bad thing, and was a tipping point in the wrong direction. But it looks like some folks are trying to white-wash that history. In the Chronicle article. It is said that Main Street Augusta, the group responsible for First Friday, just "fizzled" out. Brad Owens, who was a downtown bar owner and very active in various downtown groups, says that is flat out incorrect.

The most interesting part of The Chronicle article came underneath in the comments section. Brad Owens posted a very informative comment (which surprisingly is still up on The Chronicle website). Brad gives us a great timeline of what actually happened regarding Main Street Augusta and The Downtown Alliance and how the DDA seized control. I have pasted his comment below:

OK, where do I begin?
First, this is a 100% fact; "The number of downtown businesses dropped 27 percent over the past decade..."
Numbers don't lie and the DDA can try to spin it any way they choose, but a net loss is a net loss. Period.
Second, Augusta's Main Street program did not "fizzle" it was destroyed by the DDA itself. I challenge this statement for being non-factual, "Its board disbanded, and programs such as Saturday Market and First Friday were picked up by the Downtown Development Authority, according to Woodard..."
That is a misleading statement at best, 100% fabrication at worst.
Hal Hood was forced to resign and the vote by the Main Street Board to dissolve was not taken in accordance with the by-laws. The DDA wanted to keep the funding that was sent to Main Street thorugh the DDA by the county (please note the DDA didn't see a reduction in it's stipend it gets from the RC tax payer after MSA "disbanded").
Also, the only reason the DDA even has a budget is because of Main Street. After the city and county became one, Randy Oliver said the Main Street program could not receive direct funding form the city, so they merged the DDA and Main Street programs to have an "Executive Directors" position.
The money Main Street was getting was supposed to just pass through the DDA not be controlled by them.
Main Street was a business assoc of sorts for downtown, and have non-profit status. The DDA got to keep the non-profit status even after they got rid of Main Street.
It was a dirty deal form the begining, and just after they got rid of Main Street, the Downtown Augusta Alliance (DA2) showed up on the scene.
Also, the Enterprise Fund used to get the Sat Market off the ground was coordianted by several folks (me included) with then commissioner Tommy Boyles, Janie Peel was in the middle of it too.
First Friday was dumped by the DDA and the GAAC picked it up after a HUGE fight. The Chairman of the DDA along with Maggie decided, without a vote, to defund the event.
I am sick and tired of the story not being told right and folks taking credit for the hard work of others.
Hal Hood worked hard to get it right, he was sabotaged by certain DDA members and Mian Street folks in cahoots with those DDA folks.
I am sure this will probably get removed, because no one wants to hear the truth and the newspaper folks are too lazy to get at the truth.
I am tired of all the spin, downtown is not booming, it is not what it could be and certain folks have made sure that it stays down and the ball stays in their court.
As you can see, I have FOUGHT to keep the funds going to these events while certain folks wanted it sent to their own pet projects.
Facts are stubborn things.
The problem is that people seem to have a short memory when it comes to all of the big taxpayer funded boondoggles that were intended to be the "tipping points" for downtown. When one looks deeper at the white elephants enumerated above, the name Augusta Tomorrow usually comes up. Despite their less than glowing track record, city leaders still seem  look to Augusta Tomorrow for more great ideas. Their ideas, tend to always focus on heavy taxpayer spending on big ticket status projects like the failures from years past. The master plan for downtown was commissioned by Augusta Tomorrow. They have somehow managed to appoint themselves as the master planners for downtown. Who is Augusta Tomorrow? They are a Who's Who? of civic business and government big wigs. You don't see a lot small business people in the ranks of Augusta Tomorrow , who would probably be the ones with the best insight on how to revitalize downtown (The membership fee alone is $6,000 for an individual). Instead you have the usual suspects: bankers, utilities officials, GHSU officials, a hodge podge of high society club types, government officials, and even the city administrator, Fred Russell. Also you will see a lot of Augusta Tomorrow in the ranks of the DDA. So could the DDA be a government funded proxy for Augusta Tomorrow?

Could it also  be that the vision that Augusta Tomorrow has for downtown is a bit outdated and isn't inline with the vision of those small business people who have actually been the primary investors into downtown over the last 15 years?  And should taxpayers be worried that when city leaders are seeking yet another "tipping point" for downtown, that really that is code for "lets build a publicly financed ballpark downtown!"

Will the real problems and past failures of downtown continue to get ignored in search of the "Next Big Thing?" City Stink will have more coming on the proposed ballpark and will cut through the spin and propaganda and give you the real facts on the true economic impact a minor league ballpark.

Until then, here is the second part in The Chronicle's series in the struggle to revitalize downtown Augusta: Empty Buildings Downtown Remain Impediment to Growth.

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