Monday's gridlock-busting vote by the Augusta Commission did more than guarantee construction of a new downtown trade center.
It also delivered a $1 million shot in the arm to an effort to bring about transformation of the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem neighborhoods, two historically black areas suffering from decay and neglect.
The ambitious plan is expected to pump $37.5 million into the area over a half a century and spur nearly $100 million in economic development, most of that from the private sector.
In a deal worked out among commissioners in 2007, operations of the trade, exhibit and event center and the lifeline for the inner city were to be funded through a $1-a-night hotel fee, at the time projected to raise $1.1 million a year.
While details of the TEE center were still pending, by late 2008 enough bed fees had been collected to start work on Laney-Walker/Bethlehem, with consultants hired and the first properties assembled.
But an impasse arose along racial lines in May over the cost of the TEE center. During seven months of political haggling, funds for the inner-city initiative nearly dried up. Housing and Community Development Director Chester Wheeler warned commissioners that work would soon screech to a halt, and this possibility was used as a bargaining tool for those who said that without a TEE center there could be no inner-city revitalization.
Without a guarantee that the exposition facility would be built, white commissioners refused to float a $7 million bond, or to allot $1 million, or even $150,000, to keep the projects going.
$1 million up front
A stipulation of Monday's vote will move $1 million into the revitalization effort, a short-term loan from the city's general fund to be paid back with an upcoming $8 million bond issuance. City Administrator Fred Russell said he expects the fund transfer to happen this week.
The money will set off a land grab, of sorts. Laney-Walker and Bethlehem Neighborhood Action Plan consultant Jesse Wiles, the president of Jacksonville, Fla.-based Asset Property Disposition Inc., said a "significant portion" of it will go toward closing on properties he has had under contract but lacked money to close.
In October, Mr. Wiles told commissioners he needed $1.6 million to complete sales on 103 parcels, and the sellers were losing interest. Of the $853,971 already spent on the project, $385,000 has been spent buying land and $403,233 has been paid to Mr. Wiles' company for project management services, land acquisition and construction drawings.
Mr. Wiles said Thursday that he'll be making acquisitions along Wrightsboro Road, James Brown Boulevard, and Holley, Florence and Twiggs streets. Prices will be set based on appraisals, backed up by review appraisals. Gaining control of vacant, abandoned and dilapidated properties is both the first step in the process and the key to spurring interest among homebuilders.
"Our major contribution to the deal is the land," said Mr. Wiles, whose company has done revitalization work in Jacksonville, Fla.; Atlanta; Savannah, Ga.; Baton Rouge, La.; and parts of New Orleans hit by Hurricane Katrina. "This is our starting point, if you will."
Model home ready
The program has already begun in earnest on Pine Street, off Laney-Walker Boulevard. A model home, built by C.B. Walker Contractors, was being painted and wired Friday. On two lots behind it, workers dug footings and set foundations for two more houses soon to be built by J&B Construction Services Inc.
A half-dozen houses on the street have been demolished, the lots covered in straw. Most of the remaining houses have deteriorated into uninhabitable shells. Early next year, construction of two more houses will start on lots owned by C.B. Walker. Eventually, 22 homes will be built on the street, Mr. Wiles said.
Pine Street is the genesis point for what's planned as a mushrooming of revitalization, spreading outward street by street and block by block, according to Cedric Johnson, the chairman of the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem plan implementation committee and a vice president of First Bank of Georgia.
The street was chosen because of its proximity to the old central business district of the black community and its proliferation of empty, unsalvageable homes on acquirable properties, he said.
An analysis of License and Inspection Department records by The Augusta Chronicle earlier this year found Bethlehem tied with Turpin Hill for the most city-instigated demolitions since 1998 (102 each) of all Augusta neighborhoods, with more money spent in Bethlehem ($394,151) than anywhere else. Laney-Walker ranked third with 66 demolitions at a cost of $267,592.
In a 2008 windshield survey by Asset Property Disposition of 873 buildings in Bethlehem, a quarter were deemed dilapidated and more than 70 percent were in poor to dilapidated condition. Of the 1,284 buildings surveyed in Laney-Walker, 60 percent were in good to fair condition, and more than one-third were poor to dilapidated. Both neighborhoods have average household incomes below the city average, according to market analysis service DemographicsNow, with Laney-Walker at $24,861 and Bethlehem at $19,902.
Without incentives, Mr. Johnson said, developers and homebuyers would have no motivation to invest in such an area of town, and incentives are the key to jump-starting a turnaround. He said he envisions a day when houses there sell for $120,000 to $200,000.
"We can build all the houses in the world, but if we don't have the people to buy the homes, then we're just building houses," Mr. Johnson said.
According to Mr. Wiles, the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem funds will be used in several ways, administered through Housing and Community Development, to improve appearances and mitigate risk, including:
- Pairing developers with acquired properties to build both residences and commercial buildings (developers so far have been chosen through the Procurement Department).
- Working with lending institutions to help underwrite loans for development
- Down payment and payment assistance for homebuyers, along with education on obtaining credit and responsibilities of home ownership
- Streetscape improvements
- Helping homeowners who want to stay in the neighborhood rehab facades
- Helping landlords do the same, as long as they agree to continue renting to low- to moderate-income families
The goal is to eventually taper off the use of public funds, Mr. Wiles said.
"At some point," he said, "if you're good at what you're doing, the market forces take over."
One block at a time
While nonprofits such as Augusta Neighborhood Improvement Corp., Laney Walker Development Corp., 30901 Development Corp. and Antioch Development Corp. -- whose new houses on Holley Street are considered the model for the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem initiative -- have been operating in the area for years, Mr. Johnson said, what's about to happen will be beyond anything they could have accomplished for a simple reason:
"It's funding," he said. "They don't have a lot to work with, and you're talking about nonprofits."
Calvin Walker, the owner of C.B. Walker Contractors, who has built houses for ANIC and 30901, said the difference will be in sheer volume.
"The new strategy going forward is to try to do it block by block, off the major corridors," he said.
On Friday at the Laney-Walker neighborhood's Eatery restaurant and Wholesome Convenience Store on 12th Street, residents said they're ready to see the community prosper.
"This area actually needs a lot of attention and improvements," said cook Janice Allen. "We have a whole lot of dilapidated houses that need to be torn down."
Said cashier Tony Jackson: "I think it would be a good project for the community, to create revenue in the inner-city area. Hopefully, it will clean up things down this way and bring more business to this area."
Staff writer Gracie Shepherd contributed to this article.
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Collections of the city's $1-a-night bed fee, which started in April 2008, total $1.7 million to date. Of that, $853,971 has been spent on the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem initiative. A breakdown of expenses:
$403,233: Paid to Asset Property Disposition Inc. for project management services, land acquisition and construction drawings
$385,000: Land acquisition costs
$53,050: Paid to RKG Associates for market studies
$10,403: Paid to Professional Services Inc. for environmental site assessments
$1,500: Appraisal services
$785: Miscellaneous fees
Source: Augusta Finance Department