City’s red tape is no laughing matter

How does a bureaucrat cut red tape? Lengthwise.

 

A local business owner’s attempt to open the city’s first full-time comedy club in nearly two decades gives a little credence to that old joke.

Jackson Brown, owner of the Augusta Athletics Sports Bar &Grill, initially sought to open his tavern last year as a four-night-a-week comedy club called “The Best Medicine,” but was told by city planning and zoning officials his spot at the Walton Plaza shopping center wasn’t zoned for “entertainment.”

The strip center off Walton Way Extension borders the Conifer Place subdivision.

Brown argued to Augusta commissioners (specifically the eight who returned his call) that the ordinance was poorly written – it treated his proposed joke joint the same as it would a dance club or live music venue.

“The entertainment ordinance wasn’t written to address certain types of entertainment, it was intended to limit loud noise,” said Brown, an Augusta native who spent most of the past 30 years managing bars and comedy clubs in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

When the city’s Planning and Zoning Department wouldn’t budge on its interpretation, Brown opened the 3,800-square-foot tavern last fall as a traditional sports bar, skirting the ordinance by using his stage solely for acceptable non-entertainment purposes. Such as karaoke.

“It’s fine if we’re on stage singing, but the moment we turn off the music and start telling jokes, we’re violating the law,” he said, noting the absurdity.

The regulatory runaround appears to be behind him now; he was granted a variance earlier this month to operate his comedy club. Brown intends to kick off The Best Medicine with a weekend show July 7-8 followed by a four-night schedule to begin two weeks later, giving Augusta its first full-time comedy club since The Comedy House Theatre on Washington Road closed in 1998.

Besides giving local and regional comedians a place to crack wise, Brown’s months-long stand-up sit-down routine at city hall prompted officials to update its 20-year-old entertainment ordinance. Augusta commissioners approved a revised ordinance two weeks ago, and it awaits the mayor’s signature.

Of course, the new regulations mean Brown – after spending a year to get a variance under the old law – may have to return to city hall to apply for a new permit. Ba-dum-tsssssssss!

Who would have thought the business of making people laugh was so serious?

NOWHERE IN AUGUSTA: The former Somewhere in Augusta bar and grill wasn’t a full-blown comedy club, but it did offer occasionally comedy nights at 2820 Washington Road until its abrupt closing over the New Year’s holiday this year. It hasn’t been seen since.

The bar’s website, which no longer exists, asked patrons to be patient “temporarily while we pack up and move to our new location” in a “great part of West Augusta.” The owners haven’t tweeted or posted anything on the bar’s Facebook page since January. So, if the once-popular bar is still looking for new real estate, it’s being very picky.

SPEAKING OF REAL ESTATE: Most people here understand their housing dollar goes a long way, especially those who moved from suburban Washington, D.C., as part of Army Cyber Command’s relocation from Fort Belvoir, Va., to Fort Gordon.

But a recently released study by personal finance site SmartAsset.com suggests metro Augusta’s housing market is even more affordable than it “should be.”

The New York-based company even ranked Augusta No. 2 on its “Top 10 Most Undervalued Cities” list, behind only Charleston, S.C., as a city giving the most “bang for the buck” based on prices and quality-of-life metrics ranging from crime and unemployment rates to weather and walkability.

“What we’re looking for are places that are undervalued, places where you’re getting a real deal, where what you’re being offered should be costing more,” A.J. Smith, SmartAsset’s vice president of financial education, said in a phone interview.

SmartAsset focused on “cities,” not metro areas; it limited its research to Augusta-Richmond County. And that is evident from the firm scoring Augusta high in “walkability” (sorry, sidewalks are still a fairly new concept in Columbia County) and listing its average per-square-foot housing price at $55.58 (local builders say new homes are selling around $87 per square foot).

But even brand-new homes are grossly underpriced, according to SmartAsset.

“We estimate, given quality of life available in Augusta, prices should be more like $213.95 per square foot, which is almost four times higher,” the study says.

So who else does SmartAsset consider undervalued? Pittsburgh, Overland Park, Kan., and Baltimore round out the top five. See the full rankings and methodology at smartasset.com/mortgage/most-undervalued-cities-in-america-2017.

GOOD TIME TO BE A GOOD VALUE: SmartAsset’s glowing assessment of Augusta comes at a time housing in general is getting more expensive.

ATTOM Data Solutions – formerly known as RealtyTrac, the largest private curator of property data – recently reported U.S. median home prices are at their least affordable levels in nearly a decade.

The Irvine, Calif.-based firm’s second-quarter U.S. Home Affordability Index said prices are the least affordable since the third quarter of 2008.

The report says home prices are outpacing wages in 87 percent of the nation’s housing markets, and that the average percent of wages to buy the median-priced home of $253,000 is 31.8 percent, nearly seven points above the benchmark 25 percent figure.

Before we zoom in on local figures, remember “median” is the mid-point in a range of numbers and an “average” is the result of dividing the sum of a set of numbers by its quantity.

In metro Augusta’s three largest counties – Richmond, Aiken and Columbia – all but Aiken’s average wages kept pace with median home price increases. Still, residents of Aiken County could acquire a median-priced home of $134,000 with just 19.7 percent of the county’s average weekly wages.

Richmond County’s median home price of $80,000 required only 13.9 percent of average wages to purchase – about half of the 34.7 percent the average Columbia County resident has to pony up to pay for a median-priced home of $173,950.

I’m more of a 25-percenter, so I consider shoveling a third of one’s income toward housing to be excessive. But a third is nothing compared to markets such as Denver, where ATTOM data shows the median home eats up more than half the average wage. Or San Francisco, where median home prices eat up a stupefying three-fourths of income. How do these folks eat when they’re choking on mortgages?

Bottom line for the Augusta area: the typical local can afford the typical local home without hardship.

AUTO INSURANCE, ON THE OTHER HAND … : Car insurance premiums in Georgia have risen 54 percent from 2011, about twice as fast as the rest of the U.S., according to the latest analysis by consumer research website ValuePenguin.com.

In fact, the New York-based firm says residents in 142 of the Peach State’s 159 counties – nearly 90 percent –have “unaffordable” premiums, with residents in rural counties such as Clay, Stewart and Taliaferro struggling the most to pay for auto insurance.

In east central Georgia, only Columbia County falls into the “affordable” category – mainly because its typical resident earns enough to pay the increasing premiums.

“While neither county’s wage growth has been able to keep pace with the auto insurance rate hikes, the fact that the median income in Columbia is nearly double that of Richmond is behind this disparity,” ValuePenguin research analyst Craig Casazza said in response to emailed questions. “While both counties rely heavily on commuting into Augusta, in Columbia, auto insurance has become a slightly more annoying expense. In Richmond, it has become drastically more unaffordable.”

Auto premiums eat up 3.1 percent of Richmond County residents’ incomes, nearly double the unaffordability threshold set by the Treasury Department, said Casazza, the study’s author. Columbia County motorists spend “only” 1.7 percent.

Casazza, of course, notes actual affordability varies drastically from individual to individual based on driving records, credit history and their insurer. But even a light foot, dutiful bill paying and comparison shopping can’t protect you from sticker shock when your policy comes up for renewal.

“If there are more natural disasters in Georgia this year, that leads to another record year of claims; insurance companies will raise rates again, making the situation even harder for drivers,” he said.

See the full study at valuepenguin.com/auto- insurance-rate-hikes-georgia.

CAMEO CAR: You can expect to pay a pretty penny insuring an Audi A8, especially the brand-new fourth-generation model getting ample screen time in the new Spider-Man: Homecoming movie that premieres July 7.

Augusta’s Audi dealer, Gerald Jones Audi, is celebrating the automaker’s profuse product-placement agreement with Disney’s Marvel Studios during a special VIP screening at Riverwatch Luxury Cinemas on July 5. For those VIP enough to buy the new A8, it’s “official” debut is July 11.

The price? You know what they say, if you have to ask. …

GOOD REPUTATION: If you have any money left after paying your mortgage, car insurance and other necessities – no, lottery tickets are not a necessity – it’s always a good idea to sock some cash into a savings account. And if you happen to bank with Augusta First Bank &Trust, you’ll notice the local branches and ATMs will look a little different next year.

AFB&T will be adopting the name of its parent company: Synovus.

The Columbus, Ga.-based financial services company is placing its 28 locally branded divisions under a single banner to take advantage of its corporate parent’s reputation, which, it turns out, is quite good.

Synovus this past week was named America’s “Most Reputable Bank” in the annual Survey of Bank Reputations conducted by Reputation Institute and published by American Banker magazine. Synovus finished No. 2 last year, behind Regions Bank.

“We are proud to be named as the country’s most reputable bank, and I am deeply grateful to the entire Synovus team for making this recognition possible,” Synovus Chairman and CEO Kessel D. Stelling said in a statement. “This year’s ranking demonstrates that who we are, what we stand for, and how we do business resonate strongly with customers and non-customers. It also validates the strength of Synovus’ service-focused culture as we transition to a single brand in 2018.”

Stelling, by the way, is an Augusta native and started his banking career here, working in the printing department at Georgia Railroad Bank in 1973 during his junior year in high school at the Academy of Richmond County. By the time he was beginning his senior year at the University of Georgia, Stelling supervised more than a dozen employees as head teller at the bank’s Fort Gordon branch.

I wonder if he’s visited the post lately? In a few more years, he probably won’t recognize the place.

^

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3352 or damon.cline@augustachronicle.com.

 

More

Mon, 10/16/2017 - 22:06

KIRBY: Remembering a red-letter day

Mon, 10/16/2017 - 22:01

Rants and raves