Designating the entire central business district as a “slum” to borrow money to renovate the Augusta Municipal Building can be avoided, if a neighboring county’s effort is any guide.
Columbia County in 2011 designated an area around the West Town shopping center in Martinez using the same Urban Redevelopment Act that Augusta leaders are attempting to use to issue $26.5 million in tax-exempt bonds for the renovation.
While Augusta’s resolution – specifying the entirety of downtown bounded by Walton Way, Gordon Highway, 15th Street and the Savannah River – takes pains to characterize the 594.5 acres as a blighted slum, Columbia County stepped around the issue when it implemented the West Town Market Area Urban Redevelopment Plan.
“We made a decision early on that we didn’t want to use those words,” Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson said. “We were concerned that there may be some negative perception.”
Columbia County’s resolution omits the words “slum” and “blight” and instead notes that the area contains dilapidated, old or obsolete buildings and conditions potentially harmful to health, safety and welfare.
Jim Plunkett, the attorney who drafted Augusta’s resolution, questioned omitting the word “slum” and pointed to Georgia Code section 36-61-5, which requires a local government to determine “one or more slum areas exist” to exercise redevelopment powers under the law.
“In my opinion, what Augusta is doing is highly transparent,” Plunkett said. “We were just quoting the statute. We weren’t trying to be cute or avoid anything.”
Columbia County did not omit the words from its Urban Redevelopment Plan for the area, which traces the Richmond County line between Furys Ferry Road and Bobby Jones Expressway, but it detailed concerns raised by local officials that such a designation might hurt the area’s reputation and obtained feedback from officials who had already addressed the issue. The city of Roswell, Ga., for instance, used the term “distressed” and presented the plan as a way “to prevent the development of slums.”
The plan says Columbia County specifically avoided the use of “phrases, euphemisms or characterizations that might adversely affect the ultimate success of future plans for the area.”
WHILE AUGUSTA similarly designated the blighted Laney-Walker, Bethlehem and Harrisburg areas several years ago, news that it was doing the same downtown caught the commission off guard when it appeared on a finance committee agenda. However, only one commissioner – Wayne Guilfoyle – opposed the designation because its bond issue relies on sales tax funds not yet approved by voters.
The matter will reappear at Tuesday’s commission meeting. Though several commissioners are questioning it, four are attending training Tuesday in Athens, Ga., that might cause them to miss or be late for the 5 p.m. meeting. Six of 10 are needed to pass a measure.
A fifth commissioner, Joe Jackson, said he’ll miss the meeting but questions the wisdom of the designation and Urban Redevelopment Plan.
Its stated target, the municipal building remodeling, is as much a “smokescreen” as the debate over the word, Jackson said, to divert attention from the powers the government will gain by adopting the designation.
“It’s more for the public-private partnership of buying these abandoned buildings downtown to keep the property values from rising,” he said.
Jackson, Guilfoyle and Mayor Deke Copenhaver were absent March 11 when the commission voted 7-1 to approve issuing bonds for the renovation, when the use of the Urban Development Act for the project was not discussed.
Commissioner Bill Fennoy, who represents downtown and was the one commissioner to oppose the renovation project, said he’d received “phone call after phone call after phone call” about the issue.
“I definitely would not want to support that project if they’ve got to use ‘slum’ in there,” Fennoy said. He’ll request sending Tuesday’s agenda item back to committee for further discussion.
Commissioner Marion Williams agreed that creating a five-member governing entity with the capacity to issue bonds and do projects without commission approval was the problem.
“It’s four to five groups that want to run the city of Augusta, but they’re not elected,” he said. “It’s a trick they’re trying to pull.”
Copenhaver said the city owed it to taxpayers to look for savings on projects, but declined to explain what benefits might exist in making the designation other than tax savings over the 20-year life of the bond issue. City Administrator Fred Russell said the savings were about $1 million but could be more, depending on interest rates and other factors.
ACCORDING TO THE Georgia Department of Community Affairs, creating a “slum” district gives a government or other assigned entity wide powers to facilitate redevelopment in an area, in addition to authorizing the issue of tax-exempt bonds that don’t count toward a government’s debt cap.
The designation allows design and use requirements to be attached to the land, simplifies acquisition of property and permits exceptions to local ordinances.
“Removing uncertainty is one key to spurring private market investment in target redevelopment areas,” said a department guide to using the Urban Redevelopment Act.
However, the district should have a redevelopment plan in place, which includes a description of parcels to be acquired, demolished or rehabilitated; land use objectives; and a “workable plan for leveraging private resources.” Involving private resources is a primary focus of the law, according to the department.
In addition to the municipal building renovation, Augusta’s redevelopment plan cites several proposed future projects including a $75 million biotechnology research park, a $10 million Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market, $500,000 to convert the old chamber of commerce building to a tech business incubator and a $225 million housing and retail development to support 7,000 new Georgia Regents University students.