City Ink: Augusta Commission members say 'slum' is not an indictment for downtown

Life is filled with irony, is it not? City officials are paying consultants $6,000 a month to promote and “rebrand” the Laney Walker-Bethlehem revitalization district, but are willing to call downtown Augusta a “slum.”

Not to worry though. In this case, the word “slum” by any other name is “an area needing re-development,” according to Jim Plunkett, the city’s outside counsel who helped prepare the documents that could create an Urban Redevelopment Area downtown. And with that, the city would be eligible to issue $26.5 million in tax-exempt revenue bonds to complete renovations at the Marble Palace.

“It’s not an indictment of downtown Augusta,” Plunkett said. “It’s not a slum in the sense of what you think when you hear the word ‘slum.’ It’s an area that has buildings that need improvement. That’s what the statute requires you to say to create a URA.”

Attorneys and City Administrator Fred Russell looked for other ways to finance the renovations because slum is a “troubling word,” Plunkett said.

Some folks suspect there are ulterior motives for creating the district, and that it will allow downtown property owners to get their property fixed up for free. Plunkett, however said, “There’s no free money in this deal. There always has to be a revenue source to pay bond debt.”

It does, however, pave the way for the city to use various other redevelopment tools, according to Augusta Chronicle Staff Writer Susan McCord.

 

SHOOT THE MESSENGER: When McCord’s article about the documents the city’s Finance Committee will be asked to approve Monday was posted online, Mayor Deke Copenhaver, tweeted a critical review. But McCord just reported what the document stated repeatedly and described in detail.

That’s her job.

Commissioner Grady Smith said the word “slum” is not too far off.

“It’s sad to say, but if you ride the streets, you’ll see we would be a good candidate for that word,” he said.

Commissioner Marion Williams said he’s opposed to the slum designation.

“We’re known all over the world as the golf capital,” he said.

Commissioner Joe Jackson said, “I’m very skeptical. It’s a way to, maybe, spread more money around downtown.”

 

A PROPHET IN HIS HOMETOWN: Housing and Neighborhood Development Director Chester Wheeler was out of the country last week when his $2.5 million bridge loan request came before the commission. That didn’t stop Commissioner Alvin Mason from reading into the record-probing questions about the Laney-Walker redevelopment project and sending a copy to Wheeler to answer when he gets back.

Mason asked things such as how much Laney-Walker bond money has gone into the project and the total amount of bonds that would be issued during the life of the project, as well as the total estimated fees and interest for the bond issues.

“Where is the evidence of a 10-to-1 match of private investment dollars cited on your Web site?” he asked.

“I would also like the names provided and amounts and letters of commitment from our private entities that you say there’s a 10-to-1 match.”

He also asked what percentage of project money is being spent on administration, and whether any current or former city of Augusta employees or officials in principal are employed by a company to work on the project, and if so who are they?

“Let me address something else here,” he said. “As we look at this situation, I think it’s bigger than just these buildings. Zip code 30901. I’m sure you’re familiar with that, which includes Laney-Walker and Bethlehem, has just lost 25 percent of its population in the last 10 years.

“When I was chairman of the redistricting committee, there was over 5,500 folks in 30901 that are no longer in 30901. And it’s not white flight because all but 400 of them were African-American. So that wasn’t the issue.”

The city has identified 1,100 dilapidated and rundown buildings, and about 300 others in fair condition, he said.

“We’ve got 29-and-a half million dollars left. Even at $100,000 a house, you’re looking at 295 houses. That certainly does not address the issue of the loss of personnel and property … So I think it’s critical that we infuse this with private sector funds. .”

Isn’t that sort of what Dave Barbee predicted in his leaked e-mail to developer Braye Boardman that caused the mayor to ask him to resign from the Augusta Housing Authority a few years ago?

Barbee wrote something about the city becoming more white in the future and implored Boardman not to build $100,000 starter homes in the Sibley Mill area.

 

NO DOUBT ABOUT IT: City commissioners approved a new ethics ordinance last week that warns them to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest and other evil.

Before the vote, Commissioner Bill Lockett asked the attorney to see whether having accusations of commissioner misconduct put on commission agendas for debate would “hold water.”

“You know, if an accusation has been made and it’s put on an agenda, and this commissioner is found not to be guilty, forever and ever and ever it’s going to be in the back of people’s minds,” he said. “They’re going to say, ‘Yeah, he was guilty, I know.’ ”

Lockett also asked the attorney to look at the part of the ordinance calling for an investigator to gather facts and opinions for them to consider.

“I think we’re putting ourselves in a precarious position,” he said.

 

CURRENT EVENTS QUIZ

1. Calling Augusta a slum is:

a. The mayor’s and Chamber of Commerce’s worst nightmare.

b. Like calling a Hill matron a lady of the night.

c. Not too far-fetched.

d. Necessary to get the URA and the tax-free revenue bonds.

 

2. Asking probing questions about the Laney-Walker revitalization is:

a. Blasphemy

b. Racist

c. Sacred cow tipping.

d. Campaigning by a mayoral candidate.

 

3. The city’s new ethics ordinance is:

a. Not much different from the old one that everybody ignored.

b. Like locking the barn gate after the horse has been stolen.

c. A trap for future commissioners.

d. An exercise in grandstanding.

 

Answers: a, b, c or d to all.

 

A PRINCE IN THE RACE: Augusta native, Brian L. Prince will announce he’s running for the District 127 state House seat vacated by the recent death of Rep. Quincy Murphy.

The announcement
will be at 10 a.m. Monday
at the Augusta Judicial Center.

Prince, 49, retired from the U.S. Army at the rank of lieutenant colonel after 21 years of service.

Murphy’s widow, Dianne Murphy, announced her candidacy last week.

Plan to label downtown Augusta a 'slum' draws criticism
Officials seek to designate downtown a "slum"

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