A city consultant could hold the key to making sense of a proposal to designate downtown Augusta as a “slum.”
The plan, developed by City Administrator Fred Russell and special city counsel Jim Plunkett, went over like a lead balloon when it appeared on a committee agenda. Commissioners and the public were surprised and disheartened by the designation, which most view
as inaccurate given the increasing development downtown in recent years.
As commissioners grilled Russell about the plan at a recent meeting, in the audience was Matthew Kwatinetz, a consultant who came to Augusta with the development team for Starbucks’ soluble products plant.
After the meeting, Kwatinetz said the designation could prove to be a valuable tool for downtown, if handled properly.
So far, the move has been presented as simply a way to issue bonds at lower interest rates using Georgia’s Urban Redevelopment Law to remodel the Municipal Building.
Kwatinetz, who has consulted for Mayor Deke Copenhaver’s Augusta Regional Collaboration Project, said he’d worked with similar “but-for” designations elsewhere. Nearly all states have some form of law specifying that public money can be used in private development so long as the development wouldn’t take place “but for” the government investment, he said.
In Georgia, a government’s decision to designate an area as a “slum” affords it additional authority, including the power to use
public funds to spur private development that wouldn’t happen otherwise.
“The idea is, you’re faced with a situation and you want to do redevelopment without raising taxes,” Kwatinetz said.
Augusta has already designated the downtown area as a Tax Allocation District, allowing new tax revenues above a baseline level to be used to repay redevelopment expenses. Establishing an Urban Redevelopment Area goes further, setting the tone for development in the area through an Urban Redevelopment Plan.
Kwatinetz, who also is heavily involved in Augusta’s plan to convert historic textile mills into facilities to support the expansion of Georgia Regents University, said that means heavy footwork. He recently met for a fourth time with Harrisburg stakeholders to garner additional support for the mills project.
In the downtown project, the necessary preparation – compiling inventories of buildings, existing and neighboring plans and engaging community stakeholders – hasn’t fully happened, Kwatinetz said.
“People feel out of the loop,” he said. “The solution to that is this kind of process.”
On the other hand, Kwatinetz said the ARC Project has “done a lot of organizational outreach” and arts outreach downtown in support of the city’s other proposal, a cultural campus scattered through downtown buildings that could meld with the Urban Redevelopment Area.
“You want to organize, get all the stakeholders together” and compile what is effectively a collection of community “asks” for which members agree to the plan, he said.
At least one arts organizer said she is highly impressed with Kwatinetz, a graduate of Harvard and University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, according to his résumé.
Brenda Durant, the executive director of the Greater Augusta Arts Council, said she was “excited” about the ARC Project.
“I love big thinkers,” she said. “Matthew is someone who’s able to see possibilities for collaborations and partnerships.”