Last year, when Housing and Community Development Director Chester Wheeler asked the Augusta Commission to approve a $2.5 million loan to keep the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem revitalization project going until 2015, when more bonds could be issued, folks started asking questions – the main one being, “Where did the $8 million in bond money that was supposed to last until 2015 go?”
Wheeler said he’d built 18 houses, bought 275 lots and demolished 97 dilapidated properties, which raised a lot of other questions, such as, “Where’s the evidence of the 10-to-1 match of private to public investment dollars cited on the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem Web site?”
It turned out that the 10-to-1 match is “a long-term aspirational goal,” which might have been dreamed up by the PR firm Wheeler is paying $6,000 a month to promote the project, although the 10-to-1 match wasn’t identified as an “aspirational goal” on the Web site but as a fact.
Commissioner Alvin Mason said the math didn’t work, and that after five years and $8 million into the project the match was less than 1-to-1.
LET’S CALL IN THE EXPERTS: Mason proposed that then-city Administrator Fred Russell assemble a team of experts on urban redevelopment from other cities to review the overall project. Russell said new planning director Melanie Wilson had contacts in that area she could call on.
So the Community Planning Assistance Team (CPAT), a program of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP), the professional institute of the American Planning Association (APA), was chosen to review the project.
Can you say “conflict of interest?” The Laney-Walker project received the 2013 HUD Secretary’s Opportunity and Empowerment Award from HUD and the APA!
So the project got an award from the team doing the review. The final report will be discussed at Tuesday’s commission meeting, where Wheeler will again ask for the $2.5 million bridge loan that the CPAT recommends funding.
FLASHBACK: Before continuing with the report, I’d like for you to read part of a City Ink column written last year after the vote to call in the experts:
A Crystal Ball Report on Laney-Walker/Bethlehem Revitalization: Submitted Sept. 29, 2013, by City Ink: “Honorable Mayor Deke Copenhaver and commissioners, we the Review Panel of Urban Development Experts with impressive titles after our names have reviewed the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem revitalization project over a two-day period, reviewed financial records, interviewed Administrator Fred Russell, Director Chester Wheeler, contractors, numerous consultants and we have unanimously concluded that Mr. Wheeler has done a splendid job with the funds he’s had to work with, which brings me to our unanimous recommendation: He needs more funds.
“Thirty-seven-and-a-half-million dollars is not a drop in the bucket when it comes to a project like this. He needs $37.5 billion. With that he can transform the entire Laney-Walker area and move on to revitalize downtown Augusta, which, as you know since you did it, could be designated a slum.
“The potential of what Mr. Wheeler can do is limited only by the number of letters in the alphabet to which you can attach the word SPLOST. Start with R-SPLOST for revitalization, then move on to S-SPLOST for Streetscapes. You’ve already got a T-SPLOST. So skip that and go on to U-SPLOST for urban, and so on. After you’ve passed a Z-SPLOST – and I know you can do it by subtle threats of raising property taxes – you can start all over again with an A-SPLOST.
“If you have any further questions, our e-mail address is whatever you want us to email@example.com.”
THROW MORE MONEY AT IT: That’s a remarkably accurate, albeit somewhat exaggerated, prediction from the Crystal Ball, except that the report doesn’t recommend throwing money from the special purpose local option sales tax at the Laney-Walker project. It’s worse than that. Much worse. It recommends throwing general-fund money at it. The experts said without it, the project will be crippled in the long run.
Among other things, the review team recommends immediately hiring an internal project manager, strengthening community partnerships and pursuing alternative funding streams.
What it doesn’t address are the finances of the project – the 10-to-1 (or 7-to-1) public-private match Copenhaver and Wheeler have been touting. And it does nothing to clear the air on the overall financing of the project.
A BITTER PILL TO SWALLOW: Augusta mayoral candidate Helen Blocker-Adams must be disappointed to see Copenhaver’s name topping the list of hosts for Wednesday’s reception for mayoral candidate Hardie Davis, especially since she endorsed the Boy King during his 2005 runoff with then-interim Mayor Willie Mays.
Blocker-Adams had come in third in the election to fill the unexpired term of Mayor Bob Young, who’d resigned to accept a job with HUD. After endorsing Copenhaver over Mays, Blocker-Adams said she received much hostility from the black community.
Others hosting the Davis reception at the Snelling Center on Washington Road are Augusta attorney Randy Frails, Joe Mullins, George Snelling, Marion Barnes, David Bell, Chris Booker, Steve Bryant, Hardie Davis Sr., Brian Dennis, Ed Enoch, Rodger Giles, Gene Hunt, Bridgette Jefferson, James Kendrick, Rep. and Mrs. Brian Prince, J.R. Riles, Quincy Robertson, Jonathan Ross, Darren Smith, Sherry Smith, Woodrow Tillery, Bert Thomas, Cheri Tutt and Tracy Williams.
TWO SQUELCHES IN ONE WEEK: When Mason, a mayoral candidate who has campaigned against renewing the penny sales tax, said during last week’s committee meetings that the tax package was illegal, Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle asked attorney Andrew MacKenzie whether they’d followed the same process as they had for the previous tax package. MacKenzie said, “Yes.”
Mason then said they hadn’t had enough public hearings; whereupon Commissioner Donnie Smith said, “We had the same number of public hearings we had before. But you would have had to have been here to know that we held them.”
Mason said he had to make a living, and that he had experience from being a commissioner during the previous SPLOST.
“Well again, you would have to have been here to use that experience,” Smith said.
At public forums, Mason has been touting growth and new businesses coming to Augusta during his tenure on the board, including Costco, but WJBF-TV reporter George Eskola confronted him with the fact that he’d been the only commissioner to vote against the Costco incentive package and is now taking credit for it.
“I never said I would bring anything,” Mason said. “I think it’s clear I said, ‘We brought some of the most explosive growth.’ Any one commissioner can’t bring anything.
I don’t feel like we had to give up the bank,” he said, adding that if some of his colleagues had voted no as well, they might have gotten a better deal.
A DANCE HALL BY ANY OTHER NAME IS STILL A DANCE HALL: When a request for a dance hall license to be used in connection with Cheerz Lounge at 2059 Gordon Highway came up on last week’s committee agenda, Commissioner Marion Williams objected to the term “dance hall,” asking why it had to be used.
Rob Sherman, a deputy director in the planning department, said that was the term used in the city ordinance.
“Do you know what a dance hall is?” Williams asked.
I called Williams later to find out whether he knew something about dance halls I didn’t know. He said, “A dance hall sounds like something in the old West – a saloon. If it’s dancing, it ought to say dancing.’ If it’s alcohol and dancing, it ought to be alcohol and dancing, not ‘dance hall.’”