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Committee OKs downtown 'slum' designation

Monday, Sept. 9, 2013 9:08 PM
Last updated Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013 1:26 AM
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Augusta Commission members debated the merits of declaring the central business district a “slum” to borrow money to renovate the Municipal Buil­ding, but ultimately a committee approved the measure 3-1 Monday.

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Commissioners Marion Williams (left) and Donnie Smith speak during a meeting Monday. Deeming downtown a "slum" grants exemptions for the Municipal Building renovation project.   EMILY ROSE BENNETT/STAFF
Commissioners Marion Williams (left) and Donnie Smith speak during a meeting Monday. Deeming downtown a "slum" grants exemptions for the Municipal Building renovation project.

“Part of that package was to be bonds based off SPLOST 7,” said Commissioner Wayne Guil­foyle, who opposed the measure. “I don’t believe in borrowing money we don’t have.”

The commission voted 7-1 in March to renovate the Munic­ipal Building by borrowing $26.5 million backed in part by future sales tax collections but didn’t discuss other details of the bond issue.

Attached to Monday’s finance committee agenda was the city’s plan to designate 594 downtown acres as a “slum” under a Georgia law to allow a special Urban Re­de­velop­ment Agency to issue tax-exempt bonds for the project.

Jim Plunkett, the special city counsel for bond projects, said he’d worked on the deal for months, though most commissioners said they knew nothing of its details until reading The Augusta Chron­icle on Friday or their lengthy agenda packets late Thursday.

“Why is it that I had to find out from print media that this was in the works?” asked Commissioner Bill Lock­ett, who is not a member of the finance committee approving the measure. “This is something we should have probably talked about in a work session.”

City Administrator Fred Rus­sell said it was “unfortunate that the word has to be used” but that the designation ultimately allows the agency to issue tax-exempt bonds, which will save the city about $1 million over the life of the loan.

“I’m somewhat rewarded by the fact that so many have taken offense,” he said.

Plunkett said the large district was designated to coincide with the existing Tax Allo­cation District, getting the designation “over and done with at one time.”

“It’s something that everybody has to just accept,” he said.

Commissioner Marion Wil­liams said he had “no idea” a slum designation was required to remodel the Municipal Building.

“If we use that and it’s not a slum area, are we within the guidelines of the law?” he asked.

Plunkett said it was “the discretion of the board” to determine whether downtown “meets the definition of a slum under the statute.”

Commissioner Alvin Ma­son said he wasn’t concerned about the word.

“I’m all for looking into those options,” he said. “I’m not scared or worried about the word ‘slum.’ ”

Commissioner Bill Fen­noy, also not a member of the finance committee, argued that “words do matter. What you call a slum does matter … Business owners, property owners on Broad Street are very concerned about their businesses being designated as a slum.”

Broad Street businessman Mike Walraven read the state’s criteria for the official “slum” designation. It cites dilapidated buildings, crime, health hazards, poorly configured street layouts and noise pollution. He cited a state guide’s recommendation that the designation be “handled sensitively” so not to become “the subject of extensive debate.”

Walraven also asked for examples of the designation’s effectiveness in the Harris­burg community, which was given a similar “slum” designation several years ago.

Mayor Pro Tem Corey John­son said the word was distracting commissioners.

“We get caught up in what people think,” he said, offering that they call him a “bum” to get $2 million.

In another matter, the new Au­gusta Convention Center is performing better than expected, according to Paul Si­mon, of Augusta River­front LLC, which operates the convention center and hotel complex on the edge of the proposed district. The company shares management with Morris Communications Co., owner of The Chronicle.

In the first seven months of the year, the center is $191,694 under budget, Simon said. The center has been used for 20 conventions attended by 16,025 people whose total estimated visitor spending is $2.7 million, he said.

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ColdBeerBoiledPeanuts 09/10/13 - 12:33 pm
Why is the media stuck on this designation?

Maybe it's because Columbia County didn't use the designation to remodel an outdated courthouse for more money than it would cost to move to a more user friendly facility. They are there to serve the taxpaying public, not themselves. If you ask me it's "Issuing and Uttering a Fraud"! Look that up the the Ga.Code!

Little Lamb
Little Lamb 09/10/13 - 12:48 pm

Thank you, CBBP. You have zeroed in on the concern. You should not use state money intended to redevelop slums to instead remodel your Marble Palace City Hall.

Little Lamb
Little Lamb 09/10/13 - 12:50 pm
Under Budget?

From the story:

In the first seven months of the year, the center is $191,694 under budget, Paul Simon said.

What does it mean when a convention center is "under budget?" Does it mean that they are making a profit?

raul 09/10/13 - 01:40 pm
@Countyman Let's see if I can clarify. I

Let's see if I can clarify. I really don't care what Martinez did. I don't consider it a downtown area. For years the city has been trying to focus attention through revitalization on downtown Augusta. But for a "millionish" in " rough numbers", the local government is willing to sell out and allow it's downtown to be branded, yes branded, as a slum. It amazes me, that you, of all people are willing to support this being the advocate of downtown Augusta that you are. You may get a little carried away at times, IMO, but I can tell you are sincere. Arts in the Heart is a great event for Augusta, but when you put a negative label on the whole of downtown, you will get sarcasm and joking remarks.

GnipGnop 09/10/13 - 02:13 pm
Central Business Slum

Doesn't really have a good ring to it...

GnipGnop 09/10/13 - 03:13 pm

Global and the JBA are doing so great they still haven't paid the Riverhawks their losses for their final games nor have they gave them a decision on the future of the ice....sounds like a top venue to me...NOT!!!!

Barry Paschal 09/10/13 - 07:38 pm
No "slum" designation in Martinez

Countyman, perhaps you should watch George Eskola's story from tonight on WJBF-TV. The story made it clear that Columbia County never used the term "slum" in designating the older Martinez area an "Opportunity Zone."

Riverman1 09/11/13 - 07:58 am
I missed Eskola's report. Did

I missed Eskola's report. Did anyone see it? I wonder if there's a video?

Gage Creed
Gage Creed 09/11/13 - 08:51 pm
Will they rebrand the DDA as

Will they rebrand the DDA as the SDA?

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