When William Aiken moved to what is now Aiken, he likely never envisioned that the once small, railroad town would become a hub of commercial businesses and a destination site for tourists.
The first layout of downtown Aiken incorporated wide streets and parkways, designed by engineers Alfred Dexter and C.O. Pascalis in 1834. Aiken became incorporated the following year. The layout of the City of Aiken is no mistake, according to local historian Elliott Levy.
“Concept was, No. 1, it was interesting because if you were an architect laying out a City now, they'd say, 'Oh, you're brilliant,'” Levy said. “They did it because they wanted a team of six horses to turn a wagon around.”
While downtown Aiken now features more automobiles and fewer horse-drawn buggies, the architectural design of the small downtown continues to illustrate a bit of the old Aiken, interlaced with the new. Residents and tourists can still walk past old historic buildings with old facades on the outside, lit by new street lamps with an old time look. Through downtown Aiken, grids and medians weave through the roads, decorated with bright flowers and vegetation.
When the Railroad and Canal Company wanted to draw interest from those visiting Aiken, the aesthetic appeal became very important. Aiken was designed to have plenty of trees and open space for a healthy living environment.
The town passed a resolution in 1859 prohibiting the cutting of trees on public streets, according to the City of Aiken government website.
Today, Aiken's downtown still thrives on its vegetation meshed with small businesses, such as Plum Pudding or restaurants like Malia's.
The creation of the A.D.D.A.
When Mayor Fred Cavanaugh first moved to Aiken with his family after his dad was transferred to work at the Savannah River Site in April 1953, there was not a whole lot to do in the downtown area.
“There were a couple of movies and places to eat, but they weren't what you would consider as nice restaurants,” Cavanaugh said. “There were places you could go and sit on the counter, some places had booths. But a lot of people would go down to Augusta.”
Before Cavanaugh became mayor in 1991, and during his service on City Council in 1985, he said downtown was going slightly downhill, with many stores vacant.
Cavanaugh met with downtown businessman Bob Bradford, owner of the Spiced Apple restaurant. The two discussed the future of downtown, according to the 2008 Downtown Aiken Digest, and sparked a change to the landscape of downtown.
“A friend of mine called me one day and said, 'Come talk to me about downtown, I'm concerned,'” Cavanaugh said. “'I know, I have a friend in Greenwood, and they just started something,'” he said.
Cavanaugh and others traveled to Greenwood. “We had two vanloads of people, and we stayed the better part of the day and came back very excited.”
That's when the group created a downtown association for Aiken. After several meetings, John Cunningham, a well-respected banker, was asked to become downtown manager. A meeting was called in USC Aiken's then-Chancellor Bob Alexander's office with representatives of the Chamber and City Council members. Each committed their personal support. The group became what is today – the Aiken Downtown Development Association.
“That was a key point in the history of our downtown becoming what it is today,” Cavanaugh said.
The City then started began work to restore their vacant buildings and work to attract local businesses downtown.
Investing in downtown
The next big thing that happened, according to Cavanaugh, was in 1992 when Westinghouse started running the Savannah River Site instead of Dupont.
“Dupont got out of it, and, when that happened, they brought in a lot more people because of the differences in contracts,” Cavanaugh said. “All of a sudden, the population went up from 12,000 to 24,000.”
Over time, with SRS ridding of thousands of jobs, many workers retired and remained in Aiken, participating in various activities from volunteering to starting their own businesses. Cavanaugh and many other residents got together and decided to start the Aiken 20/20, five-year fundraiser, raising about $3.4 million. Portions of the money went to education and computers, and some went to the downtown area that helped build a lot of what residents see today.
“It was a wonderful thing,” Cavanaugh said. “It was a five-year pledge, and it really worked. So, that was another major point in the history of downtown Aiken. Since then, we've just built on it, like with all the amenities in the downtown area with flowers. It's amazing to hear why people moved to Aiken, and many times it's the beauty of the flowers and the fountains and the variety of stores.”
In 1994, City Council invested in downtown's infrastructure in a 15-year Tax Increment Finance District, according to the 2008 Downtown Aiken Digest. The City borrowed $1.5 million to pay for improvements, increasing the value of the downtown area. The higher property tax was then used to pay back the loan.
With all of Aiken's downtown investments, downtown Aiken continues to bring many back.
“Downtown has gone through many transformations,” Levy said. “The gas explosion, and you have got some high school there where the Trinity Nursing Home is now. People come here and are amazed at the way these roads are and whole ambience of the area.”
Aiken natives like Skipper Perry have a fondness for the development and transformations of Aiken through the years.
“I first started working at Farmer's and Merchant's Bank in the early 70's,” said Perry, president of Aiken's Center for the Arts. “I went from there to Houndslake. And I had a business downtown for 15 years in Palmetto Package shops.”
Aiken Center for the Arts, once Rose Hill Arts Center, was founded in 1972 by Pat Koelker and Nancy Wilds as a place for aspiring artists to teach, learn and create. Today, the Center connects the community with the arts in education workshops, exhibits and concerts. Perry said the Center is one of downtown's success stories.
“It was a two-story furniture store, and we bought it for a very good price,” Perry said. “We raised a bunch of money and fixed it up. When we nailed that last nail, it was all paid for. We do not have any debt.”
Although downtown's businesses offer an array of shopping needs, Perry still misses the old hardware stores, but said all the restaurants in the area is something he really likes.
“It's vastly improved,” Perry said. “You just can't even compare. It used to be just hobby stores, and now you have some serious people that make a living out of it.”
Today, Perry said, high-quality stores have surfaced downtown. Even when stores close, others soon take their places, such as the 32-year-old West Side Bowery now turning into a Mellow Mushroom.
One of the most visited areas in the downtown Aiken area is The Alley, home to several restaurants such as the Bowery owned by Sam Erb.
Erb, originally from Philadelphia, started as a dishwasher at Eejay's, moving up to cook, then server. When Erb opened the Bowery, many gave him grief, noting how The Alley was not an area one would want to walk through.
“The only other place opened in the Alley was Charlie's Fish Market, and I mean, we served 48 people that first day and they were brave souls, we called them,” Erb said. “So it was rough. We didn't have running water or heat in here when we took over the building.”
The Bowery opened up in what was once a stable for merchants looking to store their horses. Before the Alley took shape what it is today, it was mostly home to vagrants and was considered a bit of a rough area to walk through.
“We opened up the restaurant the first year for $1 – that's how derelict it was,” Erb said. “I think they charged up to $100 a month or something crazy like that. Then, we became successful, and a year after we opened, Up Your Alley opened.”
According to Erb, The Alley took its shape in 1982, thanks to the development help of resident Marilynn Riviere. Erb became part of the Downtown Association, serving as chairperson years after. Since downtown's revitilization, Erb said he has seen a switch in business flow.
“I used to be able to take my Volkswagen and wash it on Saturday's, that's how slow it was,” Erb said. “Back then everybody used to dine in Augusta, and now it's almost reversed. I always use to put it as, downtowns are the hub of the wheel. We are the heart of the community.”
Maayan Schechter is the city beat reporter with Aiken Standard.
Key events shaping downtown Aiken:
- In May 1988, the City began a $30,000 remodeling project for The Alley, widening sidewalks, adding trees and repaving streets
- Aiken banker John Cunningham agrees to lead and form a downtown association, which grew to The Aiken Downtown Development Association
- Aiken starts the state's first curbside recycling program in 1989, winning a city Municipal Cup for government innovation soon after
- The City passes a strict tree ordinance in Feb. 1991
- Aiken's Strategic Plan kicks off in the spring of 1993, continuing Aiken's downtown revitilization
- City Council creates a Tax Increment District downtown in 1994, borrowing $1.5 million to pay for infrastructure and spur the economy