“Downtown” Columbia County
Evans Towne Center Park
photo courtesy of The Augusta Chronicle
October 6. Columbus Day Arts & Antique Festival (Evans Towne Center Park)
October 12. Eddie Money & Starship Concert (Evans Towne Center Amphitheater)
November 10: Symphony Orchestra Augusta (Jabez S. Hardin Performing Arts Theater)
December 1. Christmas in America Tree Lighting (Evans Towne Center Park)
Third Thursday of the Month. Brown Bag Book Discussions (Columbia County Library)
Third Monday of the Month. Monday Night Book Club (Columbia County Library)
The roof of the Lady Antebellum Pavilion in the Evans Towne Center Park’s amphitheater angles optimistically toward the clear, pristine blue morning sky. A slight breeze ripples the flags that stand like ambassadors just beyond the park’s front gates. Their gentle movements translate into welcoming gestures.
Not far away, cars begin to fill the Columbia County Library parking lot, their passengers anticipating the 10 o’clock unlocking of the doors. Some eager bibliophiles sit at tables outside of the library’s Catch Phrase Café. A few press their faces to the glass doors, peering longingly at the shelves of books. Others lounge on the back lawn while toddlers explore. Storytime will start soon. Afterwards, if they’re lucky, Mom might take them to the library playground for a spell. If they’re really, really lucky, she’ll take them to the BIG playground in the nearby Evans Towne Center Park.
Up the hill in Building C, people pay their ad valorem taxes and receive their car tags. Someone applies for a job at the county’s human resources department in Building B. By this time of the day, folks have arrived at their desks and settled down to business in the Judicial Center, the County Commission offices, the Sheriff’s Department sub-station, Columbia County’s Emergency Management Agency, the Chamber of Commerce offices and the government complex.
All of this and more is conveniently located in Columbia County’s Evans Town Center area that has sprung up in the past 12 years, but is used by citizens as if it has been there for a hundred. Patrons can pay their property taxes, pick up a brochure filled with ideas for entertaining out-of-town guests from the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and take their canine companions for a frolic in the dog park all within a distance of a few blocks.
Ron Cross, Columbia County Board of Commissioners chairman, has presided during the bulk of the construction of the Towne Center area. “It happened gradually,” he says. “It has come together through a series of smaller plans that were compatible with each other.” Though a strategic master plan was not available for guidance, throughout the various phases of development attention was given to creating continuity in the facades of structures, landscape design and community services. “Columbia County is kind of scattered,” remarks Cross. “[Town Center] is the closest thing we have to a downtown.”
Indeed it has become a hub of activity, both during normal business hours and during evenings and weekends. Barry Smith, Columbia County Community and Leisure Services division director, who oversees the recreation and leisure facilities and events in the Town Center area, among other responsibilities, agrees with Cross’s assessment, saying, “It gives a feeling of centralization that I think is important.” It positively impacts the way people live and draws the county’s citizens together on common ground.
The new playground at Evans Towne Center Park is one of the many attractions that draws families to the Town Center area of Columbia County.
First on the scene in Town Center were the courthouse and county government buildings A, B and C. Other structures were added in the passing years. In 2006, the Columbia County Library was completed. Kathy Hebert, circulation director, who has been with the Columbia County Library for 25 years and participated on planning committees for the current facility, says, “We want it to be a one stop place. That was our main goal, to benefit everybody. We’re a place for everyone, from babies in strollers to senior citizens.”
A stately modern building with traditional architectural elements, under its roof the library houses the Catch Phrase Café (rumor has it that their chocolate malts can’t be beat), the Friends of the Library book sale area, the Jabez S. Hardin Performing Arts Theater, a meeting room, three study rooms, 90 public computers and approximately 100,000 media items (books, periodicals, DVDs, audio books, etc.) in the stacks. Adults can participate in activities like the monthly Brown Bag Book Discussions or Monday Night Book Club, author presentations, genealogy classes and computer instruction. Kids’ classes include events such as readings by local celebrities, Wii tournaments and opportunities for artistic expression. Teens and tweens can join common interest clubs, such as digital photography.
The Jabez S. Hardin Performing Arts Center routinely hosts Symphony Orchestra Augusta performances and family movie matinees. Choral and orchestral concerts, dance productions and plays have also taken the stage in the past. The theater’s intimate size—it seats 289—wonderful acoustics and professional lighting and sound technology contribute to a pleasing experience for the audience.
The splash pad at the Columbia County Library is a popular respite on hot days.
Several reading areas throughout the library provide views through the enormous windows to the sweeping lawn at the back of the building. Inevitably, the body begins to demand its fair share of exercise, amply available on the walking track around the pond. Or one may choose to stroll through the Memorial Gardens or course up and down the Columbia County Amphitheater seating levels. Children naturally gravitate to the playground, which is being expanded to include an accessible playground for special needs children, and on warmer days to the splash-pad. Many visitors stay the day, bring a picnic, throw a Frisbee, read a book, meet up with old friends and make new ones.
On the southeast corner of the pond, a picturesque stage back-dropped by brick columns and arches and situated in the cusp of curved tiers appears ripe for the enactment of a Greek tragedy, but in reality the Columbia County Amphitheater most often hosts tear-free, family-friendly programs. The annual Amateur Night Series, held during the carefree evenings of summer in June, July and August, provides free family entertainment and a forum for talented performing artists to showcase their abilities. Each April, the Blues, Brews and BBQ festivities return to the amphitheater and every May Arts in the Park invites all ages for a day-long celebration of creativity.
As Columbia County continues to grow, and population in the Evans area increases, usage of Town Center amenities has steadily risen. The new Evans Towne Center Park, a major project initiated in 2004 and finished in 2012, aids in accommodating the demand for organized and passive recreation, leisure and entertainment opportunities. Cross, who drove by the then open field every morning on his commute to work, says, “I began to watch the use of the land and noted the many activities that took place and began to think more and more that this property should belong to the people of the county.” With the support of the commission, negotiations and an eventual agreement for the sale of the land by Doctors Hospital to Columbia County ensued.
Organized on 17 acres, the park features expansive lawns, a rock playground made from boulders uncovered during excavation and grading, an off-leash area and agility course for dogs, picnic pavilions, a playground, a walking track, a splash-pad and an outdoor amphitheater that can hold around 8,000 spectators. Encircled by a wrought-iron fence interspersed with brick pillars, it gives a face to what community and quality of life in Columbia County mean for those who live and work there.
Lady Antebellum, for which the new Evans Towne Center Park Amphitheater is named, performed an inaugural concert to sold out crowds last year.
Evans Towne Center Park, Lady Antebellum Pavilion and the Josh Kelley Stage were dedicated on October 28 last year, with a Lady A concert topping off the night. Where the Columbia County Amphitheater possesses a Greek profile, the Evans Towne Center Park Amphitheater shouts sci-fi, in a nice overcoat, of course. It’s wired and ready for hi-tech, open-air rocking-out. Since the Lady A christening of the facilities, citizens of Columbia County and from around the region have attended multiple events at the park. Everything from the Easter Egg Scramble to a plant swap and sale to an RV and boat show has graced the facility. In May, Symphony Orchestra Augusta’s annual Pops! Under the Stars was performed in the Lady Antebellum Pavilion and, in June, the Books Alive Literary Festival celebrated the joys of reading. A chili cook off, a health fair, American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, an Eddie Money & Starship concert and the Christmas tree lighting are slated in the coming months. The three day Banjobque will bring bluegrass music to the park next May.
Build it and they will come, as it is said. The Town Center area hums with the bustle typical of a traditional downtown. In response to that daily influx of people, the actual number rising and falling depending on the day of the week, the weather and the county’s event schedule, the private sector has begun filling in around Town Center. Kroger and Starbucks are both positioned a stone’s throw west of the Government Complex. A Chili’s restaurant moved in across the street from Evans Towne Center Park, prior to the park’s completion. Medical offices are situating themselves in the locale and professional services from tax preparation to legal advice are available close by. The Evans Town Center Overlay, put in place early in the last decade, ensures that any new construction built within a 1.1 mile radius from the intersection of North Belair Road and Evans to Locks Road will meet set standards for appearance.
An effort to connect the Town Center area to the greater county is afoot as well. An established bike path currently follows the route from Savannah Rapids down Evans to Locks Road, ending at Blue Ridge Drive. Eventually it will extend from Savannah Rapids to Evans Towne Center Park and on to the Columbia County Library. “We want to make it as convenient as possible for citizens and visitors to traverse this area of the county,” explains Smith. He adds, “All these projects are built through SPLOST funds, so the citizens are voting for them.”
By all observations and accounts, the citizens are getting their money’s worth and a whole lot more. Late afternoon falls on the Town Center area. The breeze lifts and the flags at the Evans Towne Center Park entrance flap happily. Still the people come. Panting dogs with tongues dangling out of their mouths romp and play. Children beg for five more minutes on the playground before going home to dinner. A new wave of bibliophiles retreats into the library to do research, meet up with study groups, download audio books, take a class or recline in a comfortable chair to devour a bestseller.
A hard-body executes push-ups, his hands grasping the edge of a length of Columbia County Amphitheater seating. A few tweens giggle as they walk around the pond talking teachers and middle-school dramas. A couple of teenage boys throw a football a few more times and discuss guitars and upcoming concerts in the Lady A Pavilion. Tomorrow, another blue sky will dawn, the flags will wave and more will come for county business, for exercise, for fresh air, for learning, for listening, for the connectedness to community that Columbia County’s Town Center delivers.