The Augusta Chronicle has two interesting articles in the Sunday edition. The purchase of the Fat Man’s novelty store location by Michael Schepis, owner of the downtown restaurant Pizza Joint, is important business news for the area. Perhaps Mr. Schepis is tired of waiting for the promised revitalization of Augusta, and is ready to throw in with Columbia County, which has grown much larger even since we moved here in early 2001. I actually think that story is bigger news than this one. Augusta is the past; Columbia County is now. The future, of course, remains to be seen.
When we moved here from London, we saw downtown Augusta as a future promise. There were several fun places to eat and get a beer, and signs on many of the buildings proclaimed mixed-use urban developments were in progress and in fact were right around the corner. Columbia County lacked many of the urban amenities we had in London. The ones we particularly missed were so-called “third spaces:” places you go in your leisure time that are neither home nor work, but provide a setting for social exchanges. Parks, coffee houses, and pubs are what we wanted, and it looked like our best chances for getting them were in Augusta.
It’s been four years now, and there are a few more places to eat and drink downtown, the city council gives occasional lip service to revitalization, for example the demolition of a decrepit eye-sore of a building to make a town square, and a weekly farmer’s market during the spring and summer, but a revitalization effort needs sustained residential and retail development. Otherwise, it will never draw new residents and shoppers in from booming Columbia County.
The question for Columbia County is whether the growth we’re experiencing will be limited to the drive-everywhere big box retail type associated with suburban sprawl, or whether it will be better managed, providing welcoming spaces where families can gather, walk from store to coffee shop to park, leaving the cars where they belong: in the driveway and parking lot.
The Augusta Exchange is an example of the type of growth I would like to avoid. It’s a few acres of medium sized retail stores, along with several restaurants and some big-box retail. Think of several strip malls getting married and having a clan and you’ve got the Augusta Exchange. The place is so unfriendly to pedestrians that people will actually get in their cars and drive from one end of the same side of the street to the other! I can be stubborn about these things, so I try to walk, but crossing the street in this place feels like you’re putting your life in the hands of that SUV driver over there, and he is talking on the cell phone and entertaining his three kids in the back seat when he should be driving. Or rather, when they all could be out walking.
I do have some hope that Columbia County will get it right. There are plans for a mixed-use development near the Evans town center called Marshall Square that could turn in to the center of something nice. Our new library is looking good, and has a performing arts center and a cafe attached.
I think Augusta had a chance to jump on to the growth of Columbia County, but that was a few years ago, and now they’ve missed this chance and will have to wait for the next one.
Where do I live? I used to tell people from out of the area that I lived in Augusta, but now I say I live in Columbia County.