In almost three months without the Clean Augusta Downtown Initiative, supporters say the city center has returned to a trashy, leaf-strewn area incompatible with a vibrant downtown.
Alex Wier, whose design studio bought and remodeled a building in the 900 block of Broad Street, said the sidewalks seem dirtier than those he saw recently in New York City.
“Leaves everywhere,” Wier said. “A billion cigarette butts and broken glass, where tourists come and families walk.”
His partner at Wier-Stewart, Daniel Stewart, provided one of the 116 signatures presented in support of Clean Augusta at an Augusta Commission meeting in December at which the group rejected renewing a special purpose tax district.
Under Georgia laws allowing the creation of business (or community) improvement districts, more than half of property-owning entities – or the owners of more than half the district's assessed value – must consent to the tax.
The petitions, obtained by The Augusta Chronicle, actually represent the views of only 78 individuals, because many represent more than one corporation, each of which receives a vote.
Most represented were developer Bryan Haltermann, who signed a dozen; Alonzo P. Boardman, Mayor Deke Copenhaver's father-in-law, who provided six signatures; and downtown developer Paul King, who signed eight, including one for the former J.B. White building, which his firm manages.
If the petitions are verified, that's legal, though together the 116 firms or individuals paid only $103,066 of the total Clean Augusta assessment last year, according to a Chronicle analysis.
The Clean Augusta board, which met rarely during its first term, wants to address the commission's concerns about its management in an effort to have the district renewed, said board member Natalie McLeod, who has bought and renovated historic buildings in the district.
“We've been working to address those issues and correct those things,” McLeod said, so the downtown initiative “can go back and ask them to reconsider.”
The first step, Clean Augusta board member Bob Kuhar revealed last month, was to distance itself from the Downtown Development Authority, which earned a $25,000 annual fee from the tax levy to administer the program for its first five years. The district’s 6.9-mill levy generated $300,000 to $400,000 annually to pay for the program.
Another perceived issue is the separate, lower millage paid by Augusta Riverfront LLC for Clean Augusta services in the district’s first five years, McLeod said. The firm shares management with Morris Communications Co., the owner of The Augusta Chronicle.
Augusta Riverfront's 6-mill assessment for Clean Augusta on two Marriott hotel buildings, valued by the tax office at more than $25 million, generated more than $61,000 toward the program in 2012, according to tax records. That’s more than any individual paid who signed one or more of the petitions.
The lower rate “was not supposed to favor anybody,” said Kuhar, the vice president of Morris properties and facilities. “It was just recognizing that the Marriott was paying a very high percentage of the overall BID (business improvement district).”
A third issue, McLeod said, is who is on the Clean Augusta board. When the commission vetoed renewing the district, several members complained that four of its 12 members were either Morris or Marriott personnel.
New bylaws will permit any property owner to be nominated and elected to the board, instead of requiring the presence of the largest property owners, McLeod said.
Lack of citizen participation and involvement is the major management problem faced by improvement districts, according to Kennesaw State University professor Andrew Ewoh, who studied 13 of the districts in metro Atlanta with graduate student Kristin Rome.
“The expectation here is that the inclusion of citizen participation will serve as an added level of legitimacy, which will provide the buy-in commitment from residents for long-term sustainability of public-private partnerships,” Ewoh and Rome wrote.
The new board will take an active role in educating the public about the program’s role and governing the new Clean Augusta, whose administering agency and contract provider have not been selected, McLeod said.
“I think it can be better than it ever was,” she said, but “it's going to take having more people involved.”
Despite the proposed changes, Morris, which refused to sign petitions to renew the tax district last year, has not changed its stance on withdrawing the support, according to Kuhar.
“If you’re the property owner and you’re paying very little into the BID, and somebody else is paying for a great deal of the services, you have the potential for making changes that cost everybody else very little, but one or two of the property owners are paying the majority,” he said.
Kuhar said Morris did not support losing representation on the board or raising the hotel millage when the Clean Augusta board met recently and voted to make the changes.
“It was not a unanimous decision,” he said.
Skeptical commissioners remained so Monday. Bill Lockett said he had received “about 30 calls” either for or against the BID in recent days, but questioned why the Clean Augusta board didn’t try to win over opposing property owners first. Commissioner Joe Jackson suggested a different plan entirely.
“I'm not going to support it. I think shop owners downtown ought to start an alliance and get somebody like Jim Hull uses,” Jackson said. Hull, an Augusta businessman, funds right of way landscaping on major thoroughfares, where he owns property, through charitable donations.
“Quit taxing themselves and take over ownership of their own block,” Jackson said.
Without Clean Augusta, some downtown merchants say, they are trying to pick up the slack. Property owner Lynwood Smith said his tenants are cleaning the sidewalks in front of their businesses.
“I’ve been down there for 35 years,” Smith said. "The sidewalks were filthy dirty, leaves would blow into the stores until they did this CADI service. They kept it clean and neat. When I had my furniture store, they helped my customers more than once putting a large item into a car.”
On Monday, downtown was aglow with tulips and other plantings by Augusta Recreation, Parks and Facilities; trash cans were empty; and only a few cigarette butts served as a reminder of the weekend’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities.
Interim Recreation Director Bill Shanahan said he wasn’t sure why the department handles planting but not removal of fallen leaves, a task known to keep Clean Augusta workers busy. He acknowledged Augusta was proactive about keeping downtown tidy in the program’s absence, including for special events.
“We clean the areas that need to be cleaned. We have schedules and they go down and do what they’re supposed to do,” Shanahan said.