More accolades for Augusta’s Laney-Walker/Bethlehem redevelopment project is sending two city commissioners to Chicago for five days to accept an award.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the American Planning Association recently named the redevelopment initiative as one of two recipients of the HUD Secretary’s “Opportunity and Empowerment Award,” among 18 projects to receive awards at APA’s national planning conference.
Funded through a new hotel-motel tax that was part of an Augusta Commission compromise that allowed development of the Augusta Convention Center to move forward, the $38.5 million effort is expected to provide housing for some 10,000 residents across 1,100 acres and create 38,000 new jobs over 50 years, according to a HUD release.
Mayor Deke Copenhaver, who has touted the project at several national planning conferences, including the Mayor’s Institute for City Design, said public investment in the project will “break down walls of mistrust” as it helps “define the character of Augusta for the 21st Century.”
Two of Augusta’s historically black communities, Laney-Walker and Bethlehem, have been in an advanced state of blight for many years, despite several efforts to spur redevelopment with local and HUD funds.
Also receiving the HUD Secretary’s award is the Owe’neh Bupingeh Preservation Plan, a redevelopment effort by the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo tribe to rehabilitate the tribe’s village center in New Mexico, including 20 homes and all surrounding infrastructure.
The Augusta initiative has focused on Pine and Florence streets so far, with a few dozen new single-family and duplex craftsman-style residences now available to buyers and renters. Related efforts on Wrightsboro Road and Twiggs Circle are under way.
“The impetus for and success of this project is a direct result of a few brave community leaders who actively engaged all members of the community and insisted that inner-city quality of life issues be addressed,” said Ann C. Bagley, the chairwoman of the APA awards jury.
In Chicago for the five-day conference will be District 1 Augusta Commissioner Bill Fennoy, the former chairman of the Laney-Walker Neighborhood Association, District 5 Commissioner Bill Lockett and Housing and Community Development Director Chester Wheeler.
The conference packs hundreds of sessions conducted by experts for APA members, planning and elected officials at a cost of $800, not including hotel rooms, according to APA spokseman Denny Johnson. Most participants will stay at the Hyatt Regency, where the convention is being held, he said. The trip will be paid for by the Housing and Community Development department, not from the commission’s travel budget, according to City Clerk Lena Bonner.
The conference “will give them an understanding or perspective that can take them months or years to acquire,” Johnson said, “in a very strategic, big-picture way, and also, if they are struggling to address critical issues, there are literally hundreds of sessions that can address more discrete issues.”
Fennoy, who took office in January, said he was impressed with the redevelopment initiative and the award, as were residents he’d spoken with in the area, but that many issues remain.
“We need to address the dilapidated houses,” he said. “We still need to address the streets that need paving, we need to address the crime in the area and we need to bring a grocery store to the area.”
Lockett, who has clashed with Wheeler over Wheeler’s decision to deactivate the HCD advisory board, said he still wants the board to be revived with new bylaws he had prepared.
“I think it is great it is being viewed throughout the nation as an outstanding project,” Lockett said of the redevelopment initiative. “My only concern is the fact that we appear to be neglecting a good part of the county.”