Copenhaver addresses concerns in Harrisburg

Mayor Deke Copenhaver faced a group of Augusta's most vocal critics -- the Harrisburg-West End Neighborhood Association -- on Thursday in a meeting that didn't turn hostile.

Lori Davis, who announced her candidacy for mayor a week ago and is the association's president, said she'd sternly warned members not to engage in "back and forth" with the mayor, and the gathering of about 25 complied.

The group has pushed for a chronic nuisance properties ordinance to combat absentee landlords and blight, only to have the city's lawyers who drafted the law declare it couldn't withstand a constitutional challenge.

Copenhaver told them that few of Augusta's blighted neighborhoods have the benefit of the incoming Kroc Center.

The center, now under construction, is a multipurpose community center funded largely by a $67.8 million grant made by the Salvation Army, part of a national $950 million endowment established by the widow of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc.

"The economic impact of a $100 million investment, it's the halo effect that's really going to be the catalyst for the redevelopment of Harrisburg," Copenhaver said.

He said the nuisance properties ordinance had failed because Georgia is a stringent property rights state, but that a similar ordinance, utilizing a committee to evaluate properties, had seen success in Savannah.

"Why didn't our legal department come up with something defensible in Georgia courts?" asked Deb Presnell, whose Olde Town neighborhood association is experiencing similar problems with owners.

Copenhaver said only that the nuisance committee continues to meet.

The area has seen 62 drug busts during the past four months according to Sheriff Ronnie Strength, he added.

"I have noted a heightened presence," said Kroc Center coordinator Derek Dugan.

A Harrisburg resident questioned why a meth house in existence for years was finally busted.

"It would be wonderful to find out what the criteria was," she said.

After the meeting, Harrisburg activist and former commission candidate Butch Palmer said it was "interesting" to hear Copenhaver say chronic nuisance properties are an issue throughout the state.

"In Mayor Deke's job description, it's part of his job to uphold all the ordinances in Richmond County," he said.

Davis said she kept the meeting civil because she promised Copenhaver she would.

"I'll have a chance to debate him later," she said.

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