Plan to label downtown Augusta a 'slum' draws criticism

Augusta’s willingness to call the downtown central business district a “slum” for the sake of special financing drew an immediate, visceral reaction from many in the community, but it’s not the first time the city and others have used Georgia’s Urban Redevelopment Law for help with troubled areas.

“To imply downtown is a slum completely lacks journalistic integrity,” Mayor Deke Copenhaver tweeted shortly after Friday’s Augusta Chronicle story was posted online.

Legal documents going before the city’s Finance Committee on Monday for approval, however, detail precisely why downtown Augusta fits the “slum” designation, and the word is used frequently in the documents.

Copenhaver did not return repeated phone messages seeking comment.

Commissioner Bill Lockett said Friday he was unaware such a designation was to be the basis for borrowing money to remodel Augusta Municipal Building and questioned the wisdom of such a decision.

City Administrator Fred Russell said Friday that it was unfortunate that Georgia legislators do require the characterization of a “slum” for an area to receive special benefits but that suffering through the designation will be useful to continue downtown revitalization.

“We’ve opened a door that provides a lot of opportunities in lots of different ways, and unfortunately had to use the word that the state requires,” Russell said. “Long-term, we thought this was the best way to position ourselves to continue the revitalization of downtown.”

The designation, if approved by the Augusta Commission, has the stated purpose of making the city eligible to issue about $26.5 million in tax-exempt revenue bonds to complete renovations at the Augusta-Richmond County Municipal Building.

It opens the door for the city to use other redevelopment tools, including making downtown businesses eligible for Opportunity Zone state job tax credits, waiving zoning and other planning requirements, obtaining and banking properties and selling them to selected buyers whose plans fit the area’s redevelopment plan.

The city used the same law in 2010 to create an Urban Redevelopment Area in the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem historic districts and has since issued $8 million in bonds, with which consultants have acquired hundreds of blighted properties and completed 18 new houses.

Russell said the city hadn’t determined what else it would do with the downtown designation or whether the city will seek an Opportunity Zone designation.

The 1955-era redevelopment law has been used throughout the state, and though it occasionally ruffles feathers, it gives governments wider latitude to address problem areas, said Christian Lentz, the planning director for the CSRA Regional Commission.

The regional commission assisted governments in Grovetown, Washington and Thomson with developing Urban Redevelopment Plans for certain “slum” areas, Lentz said.

In the metro Atlanta area, Sandy Springs, Marietta, Union City, East Point and Dekalb County each designated several slum areas – to occasional public outcry about the word’s impact on property values – in 2010, mostly for the purpose of obtaining an Opportunity Zone designation.

Augusta’s designation requires a public hearing and the appointment of five board members. A prewritten resolution going for committee approval sets the date of that public hearing as Sept. 23.

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