By The Downtowner
Around 80 people packed a conference room at the downtown Ramada Plaza hotel last night to discuss the future of First Friday. The forum was hosted by the Downtown Advisory Panel (DAP), an organization created by the Augusta Commission in 2003 to advise them on issues concerning downtown. The DAP has mostly been dormant since 2006 but was just recently resurrected with a new board of directors voted in last month.
About 23 people spoke at the forum ranging from Augusta commissioners, downtown business owners to representatives from civic organizations. The vast majority in attendance agreed that First Friday needed to continue but that it needed better organization and a beefed up police presence, particularly after 10pm when crowds can get unruly. Coco Rubio, a downtown bar owner, suggested creating two First Fridays, an earlier and more family friendly event ending at 10pm and an after hours First Friday geared more towards adults starting when the family event ends. Rubio suggested strict enforcement of the city's curfew for the after hours event and more police walking the streets instead of sitting in their patrol cars.
Commissioners Bill Lockett, Joe Bowles, Grady Smith and Wayne Guilfoyle were all in attendance at last night's forum. Mayor Pro-tem Bowles gave the crowd his assurance that he would not vote to kill First Friday. Commissioner Lockett agreed. Conspicuously absent was Commissioner Matt Aitken, whose District 1 encompasses all of downtown. Also absent was any representative from the Downtown Development Authority as well as Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver. Mike Walraven, the chairman of the Downtown Advisory Panel says he invited all Augusta commissioners, the Mayor, the DDA, and members of the media to last night's forum.
Earlier in the day the Mayor held a meeting in his office with Margaret Woodard, the head of the Downtown Development Authority and two invited downtown business owners where he announced the creation of a campaign to add extra security for First Friday and would start by writing a check for $5,000 towards the effort and encouraged others to do the same. But many downtown business owners say they are already paying through the Business Improvement District (BID) to the tune of $350,000 a year for what they were told would be for enhanced security. Instead all of that money goes towards the CADI (Clean Augusta Downtown Initiative), which the DDA runs for a fee of $25,000 a year. Many downtown business owners have questioned the exhorbitant price tag for CADI and believe the money could be better spent.
Many people questioned why the mayor was meeting with the Downtown Development Authority to discuss First Friday and leave most downtown business owners and other stakeholders out of the loop. Many point the finger of blame at the DDA and its executive Director Margaret Woodard for First Friday becoming disorganized in the first place. Brad Owens, a former downtown bar owner who served on the DDA between 2005-2006 says "First understand most of what you have been told is misinformation, disinformation, propaganda and spin. Most of the information you have been told about the DDA and First Friday is 100% wrong."
Owens goes on to explain, "This all goes back to a time when the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) had done away with the original sponsors of the First Friday event in an attempt to keep the pass through funding it receives to support it and to not give it to the new sponsors, the Greater Augusta Arts Council (GAAC). This led to a very public conflict between the Chairman of the DDA, Paul King and myself. King was arguing to NOT give up the money that the DDA gets for First Friday to the Arts Council and I was pushing to have it cut from the DDA and reassigned to support First Friday."
Former Augusta Commissioner Andy Cheek took to Facebook and referred to the mayor's private meeting as "a joke." Cheek went further saying "If we move forward without at least getting a handle on who dropped the ball we're making a big mistake, especially when the mayor meets with the very person who dropped the ball in the first place......Apparently this is the type of leadership the Mayor supports. There is no confusion on the proper board that should be handlng the path forward on First Friday. The Down Town Advisory Panel is the governing body having jurisdiction. The DDA is attempting to do an end run around them. The DDA has failed and is corrupt. Its time to reconstitute the DDA and fire its director."
After ignoring last night's public forum, DDA director Margaret Woodard announced what she is calling an "official" meeting to discuss First Friday this Wednesday at the the downtown library, but critics say the DDA and Woodard are the problem and have become obstacles to progress downtown and instead only serves the interests of their political cronies while keeping most downtown stakeholders out of the loop.***
*Below is video from the First Friday Forum hosted by the Downtown Advisory Panel (courtest of Kurt Huttar)