The city’s need to borrow $2.5 million to continue a redevelopment project in the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem communities isn’t as urgent as first presented, commissioners were told Monday.
City officials, who initially presented the “bridge loan” request as vital to the project’s continuing momentum, said Monday a recent sale of acquired land to Augusta Housing Authority for $777,000 had eased the money crisis and would carry the project at least through the end of the year.
“A month ago, we were told that it was a crisis situation that was requiring $2.5 million right away,” Augusta Commissioner Donnie Smith said. “Now, not only do you not need $2.5 million, but the crisis has been abated?”
Housing and Community Development Director Chester Wheeler, who made the loan request after the department ran through an $8 million bond issue in three years on consultants, land acquisition and construction of a couple dozen houses, said Monday he had “no knowledge” of when the city would complete the sale of land to the housing authority for its Twiggs Circle senior housing development.
“With the dollars that we are receiving,” the loan is “not quite as critical as what it initially was,” City Administrator Fred Russell said.
The commission in 2008 agreed to dedicate $750,000 in hotel room fees annually for 50 years to redevelop the historically black neighborhoods adjacent to Georgia Regents University’s downtown campus.
In 2010, the commission agreed to issue $8 million in bonds in anticipation of the hotel fees, but now that money is nearly gone and the city can’t issue more bonds until 2015.
Commissioner Alvin Mason, who asked Wheeler a detailed set of questions about the loan two weeks ago, questioned whether the “consultants” – a group that includes architects, designers and marketing strategists – weren’t doing staff-level work outside the scope of consulting. Asset Property Disposition and Melaver-McIntosh, the two consulting firms, have cost the project about $2.1 million so far.
Russell, who – along with Mayor Deke Copenhaver – has been heavily involved in the project, said because of its “somewhat revolutionary nature” consultants were hired instead of recruiting staff to do the work.
No city staff member is even paid to work on the project full-time, Wheeler said.
The handful of homeowners who have bought completed homes, meanwhile, are concerned “about the future of their investment,” said Commissioner Bill Lockett.
Stopping the project is not an option, but it needs review by “professionals with in-depth experience in urban redevelopment” which differs widely from traditional development in the challenges that must be overcome, Mason said.
The project also needs other, sustainable funding streams, he said. At a rate of $8 million every three years, the money will be gone in far less than 50 years.
Russell said Planning Director Melanie Wilson would be able to assemble a team of outside experts to review the project’s progress and report back to the commission by the end of the year, and the city’s administrative services committee agreed.