AU students seek to bridge disconnect between downtown, river

The Augusta Chronicle

May 13–The Savannah River was the inspiration for a class project at Augusta University that could become an annual event for downtown Augusta. Highlighting and connecting more with the river is a big part of what the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau sees as the key to tourism efforts in the future, including tying together such seemingly disparate projects as a whitewater park and a new network of trails across the area.

The four students in a marketing class at AU call their effort “Bridging the Gap,” and it envisions an annual fundraising dinner on the Fifth Street Bridge that would offer a spectacular view of the river.

“The Savannah River is our biggest asset,” student Madison Layton said.

“That was our inspiration,” student Emily Banks said as she walked up the hill to the bridge. “It is something that everybody in Augusta knows.”

The group presented the idea to the Augusta Commission recently and so inspired the commissioners that they asked Recreation and Parks Director Glenn Parker to make it happen. Parker, who helped judge the class entries, said they are still in the discussion stages but that the dinner is not likely to happen until next year. But he pronounced himself impressed with the project.

The students were pleasantly surprised at the response, said AU student David Peltier.

“It’s something we didn’t expect,” he said. “For us to really start putting this event in the works is something very gratifying. One of the main ideas with the event was to really engage with our young millennials while also helping the charitable causes here in Augusta.”

The proceeds of the fundraiser would go to organizations in Augusta working with the homeless.

The unique aspect of the dinner could be a draw for young people, said AU student Erin Willingham.

“Augusta has a lot of really great events. But we haven’t seen anything really new in a while,” she said. “This is something that hasn’t been done in Augusta before. And I think the novelty of it will just get a lot of people out there to support a good cause and do something fun, something they might want to share with their friends and tell people that they do because it’s exciting.”

And besides, “Who doesn’t want to have a great meal with an amazing view on a bridge?” Banks asked.

The event gets to the heart of one of the key tourism challenges for downtown as identified in the Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Destination Blueprint plan released last year, said Jennifer Bowen, its vice president of destination development. There is a real disconnect between the main downtown area and the river, she said.

“The main reason for that is the levee effectively blocks any view or corridor from the downtown area to the river,” Bowen said. “The levee also is an obstruction for convenient pedestrian access to the river. From a tourism standpoint, from a visitor standpoint, we know also that a visitor often doesn’t really realize that the river is right there because there is just no real significant view of it.”

The bureau’s idea is to extend the Augusta Common from Broad Street across Reynolds Street to Riverwalk Augusta and even out into the river in a new river destination center. About mid-block of the extension, there would be a series of broader stairs leading up to an enlarged platform at the top, which could have fountains, shaded areas and public art and could be a place for live music as well, Bowen said.

“It actually kind of looks like a grand staircase that sort of elevates to a large plaza,” she said.

The destination center on the river could be a place for eating and entertainment but also a place to rent kayaks or other personal watercraft or possibly to pick up a water taxi. Bowen said.

A fundraising effort will begin later this year to gauge private interest in investing in the concept, with the idea of potentially using private funds to leverage public dollars later, perhaps as a special purpose local option sales tax project, she said.

The idea of a water taxi has been bandied about by some commissioners and will be part of what a whitewater design firm looks at as well as the possibility of creating the park at the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam miles away from downtown. The commission was smart to include those additional amenities, Bowen said, and the lock and dam is not the only place where they could go.

For instance, Destination Blueprint takes into account the possibility of whitewater at the lock and dam but “it also says you could consider whitewater in more of a downtown, urban area and says take a look at the Augusta Canal area as well,” she said. “The zip lines, there could be opportunities for them to be in more than one location. We do want to have a holistic approach to developing the destination.”

Another tie-in could be the network of trails that partners such as the Central Savannah River Land Trust and Recreation and Parks are creating in south Augusta that will connect with the lock and dam and could conceivably be connected to downtown through a trail atop the levee. There is already an effort to extend the riverwalk that could then be tied into trails along the canal and connect over the 13th Street bridge with the North Augusta Greeneway.”I think there is collaboratively a number of different organizations who are working on their part about that,” Bowen said. Tying all of the projects together could make for a powerful draw for tourists, she said.

“It could really become a multi-day outdoor experience for visitors,” Bowen said.

To Peltier, the AU student, getting public and private interests working together to make the bridge dinner happen is important.

“It’s key that we work as a community to help the community,” he said.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Waterways Council, Inc.