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Augusta Commission discusses 'slum' designation options

Commission continues to debate label for business district

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A Tuesday work session did little to convince four Augusta commissioners of the merits of designating the entire downtown Central Business District as a “slum” to issue tax-exempt bonds to renovate the Augusta Municipal Building.

Susan McCord
Government Reporter
Twitter: @reportr1
E-mail | 706-823-3215

City Administrator Fred Russell, who first revealed the slum plan on a committee agenda, to general public and commissioner chagrin, defended the timing of his announcement during a Tuesday work session as a mere “starting point” for discussion. Russell offered few specifics, however, about the designation’s positive benefits, aside from lower interest rates.

“There could have been some better discussion with the decision-makers on a word that’s so polarizing,” Commissioner Alvin Mason said. “That’s where a lot of the angst comes in.”

Since the plans were revealed, downtown property and business owners have questioned how the designation benefits them, and why it doesn’t make available any other resources to help downtown, said Commissioner Bill Fennoy, who represents the area.

“We discussed the remodeling,” Commissioner Bill Lockett said. “Was there ever any discussion of also including 500 acres plus? When you decided to make this detour, why wasn’t the governing body brought back in?”

Russell hinted of a development in the works that could bring 400 jobs downtown, but offered no details.

Attorney Jim Plunkett, special city counsel on bond projects and the author of the documents designating downtown as a slum under Georgia’s Redevelopment Law, suggested it would be easier for the government to fund future government building projects, such as a law enforcement substation or a theater, if it designates the entire area now, without having to “go through a similar debate.”

Under the law, a government can designate a certain area as a slum to invoke powers that correlate with an Urban Redevelopment Plan. But the plan, included with the designation, was “just a vague plan,” Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said.

Mayor Deke Copenhaver, who was upset when the slum plan made headlines before its presentation to the commission, conceded Tuesday that “the civic engagement piece was missing” from the development of the proposal.

Columbia County, which similarly
designated an area around West Town Shopping Center to obtain job tax credits for new businesses, avoided using the word and put together a proposal with help from a large stakeholder committee.

City financial consultant Dianne McNabb, of Public Financial Management, detailed to commission members how much money was available from a former sales tax referendum and how much needed to be bonded out: $26.5 million, to complete a full renovation of the municipal building, after commissioners voted early this year to revise plans to do the building in phases instead.

McNabb said designating the single block around the municipal building would be “fine” for issuing the bonds. Guilfoyle and Lockett said after the meeting that’s what they prefer to happen at this point.

McNabb said the next cheapest option for borrowing the money would be to obtain certificates of participation from Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

Interest rates on the ACCG notes are higher by as much as one percentage point, however, she said.

Plunkett said that while Columbia County had danced around the word, “lawyers are a little careful” when the designation pertains to a $26.5 million bond issue.

Lockett said a history of distrust began when Plunkett and Russell presented documents pertaining to Augusta Convention Center that contained surprises.

The documents revealed a lien on land on which the city built a parking deck that commissioners were told would be donated to the city, but wasn’t, again for tax reasons.

“We expect you all to bring us information that’s been vetted,” he said.

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Little Lamb
Little Lamb 10/08/13 - 10:19 pm
Brier Patch

A couple of days ago, a wise commenter with a screen name of Clemintime made this observation:

The Commission has Russell right where Russell wants them.

That still holds true tonight.

countyman 10/09/13 - 02:59 am
Leaders must step up to the plate!!

The Laney Walker/Bethlehem, Mills/Cultural Campus, Richmond County master plan, Augusta/North Augusta master plan, Diamond Lakes new amenities, etc are moving in the right direction. I'm ecstatic to hear the Mills Campus is going to become reality. Hopefully the Cultural campus in the CBD can have the same type of growth.

I still think everybody can see why our urban core is behind cities like Savannah, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Durham, Charleston, Greenville, etc. Does anybody really think it's a coincidence all of those cities have more yearly visitors too? The leaders of Augusta should always be focusing on attracting new money into the city(tourist, businesses, industry, etc). People want to visit Augusta, and see the unique things we offer. The majority of unique things in any city are usually found downtown. The local restaurants, festivals, theaters, events, shops, attractions, etc... The Savannah River, Medical District, Paine College, etc are right next to the CBD, and nobody is taking full advantage of the homegrown resources..

How is designating one block at a time going to bring rapid growth? The entire plan needs to be approved instead of designating one block every single time moving forward.

The proposed hotel near common, GRU plans for the GGHF site, Watermark property/train depot, Artspace, Walmart market, etc can all benefit.

How can Fred Russell bring up 400 jobs and some commissioners are still talking about one block? Fred Russell should be forced to mention every possible benefit related to the opportunity zone.

countyman 10/09/13 - 02:55 am

I understand the word slum is polarizing, but the private investments related to the opportunity zones are easily found throughout Georgia. Why didn't the leaders of Augusta call one of the multiple counties/cities that already went through this? There's absolutely no excuse for the lack of knowledge, because even locally Martinez benefited(Urban Outfitters call center & Carolina Pottery store) tremendously.

There's a reason why Atlanta is so much larger compared to the rest of the cities in Georgia. The residents living in metro Atlanta did react negatively at first similar to the Augusta residents. However, the leaders in those cities focused completely on the benefits instead of the word slum.
''Slums are popping up all over metro Atlanta. And right behind those declarations are hundreds of jobs – at least 850 new positions already announced for Union City and Marietta, and another 500 expected this summer in Union City.

At last count, 10 cities and counties in the region declared part of themselves a slum – a necessary step to apply as a state Opportunity Zone. The offending term is part of a redevelopment law that dates back to the 1950s -- when "slum" was part of the lingo.

The designation doesn't cost cities a cent, but it lets them offer state tax breaks to any businesses in the zone that adds new full-time jobs. The term drew furor last month, when Sandy Springs decided to apply for the program. Residents near the zone worried about the stigma damaging property values and the reputation as the nation’s ninth-most affluent municipality.

"These terms have received way too much attention in the debate,” said Sandy Springs city councilman Chip Collins. “Once the Opportunity Zone status is reached, no one remembers the reasons for the designation but rather only the positive effects. No one can argue that ‘opportunity,’ is a bad word.”

Indeed, not a single resident or politician said a thing when East Point declared its downtown and hot new commercial area on Camp Creek Parkway as slums last week. That could be because many in the city know East Point has twice lost out in luring new employers to nearby Union City. "We were finalists because we have a lot going for us," said Jennifer Fine, East Point's economic development director. "What we need are the incentives that come with Opportunity Zones to live up to our potential."

Biotech firm Dendreon is investing $70 million in Union City's potential. The firm is building a 160,000-square foot facility at Majestic Airport Center off I-85 to make a new cancer drug in that south Fulton County city. With it will come 500 new jobs. A separate company is building a manufacturing center next to Dendreon. An announcement isn’t expected until summer, but that site should create another 500 jobs, said Union City senior planner Shayla Harris.''

soapy_725 10/09/13 - 07:25 am
Is Fred the enforcer for the ARC Mafia? Offers they can't refuse

Is Fred the enforcer for the ARC Mafia? Offers they can't refuse

GnipGnop 10/09/13 - 02:02 pm
So in other words....FRAUD!!!

Under the law, a government can designate a certain area as a slum to invoke powers that correlate with an Urban Redevelopment Plan. But the plan, included with the designation, was “just a vague plan,” Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said.

GnipGnop 10/09/13 - 02:07 pm
Can you call a road a airport

and get federal funds to repave it? Can you call a ditch full of water protected wetlands and get federal money to save it? This list could be endless!!! Come on Fred what are you waiting for...the tax payers of Augusta & America need sound decisions like the ones you make!!!

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