Augusta Commission approves new designation to avoid 'slum' and target city-owned properties

'Slum' term axed; property focus changes
Accompanied by his attorney, Jack Batson (left) Timothy Lowery, owner of Skittlez Bar and Grill, was revoked of his alcohol and business licenses Tuesday.

A controversial plan with an uncertain impact on downtown Augusta is getting a makeover.

Augusta commissioners voted 8-0 Tuesday to revamp a proposed designation of nearly 600 acres in the Central Business District as a “slum” in favor of a more limited project with more public input.

The designation, intended to allow the city to issue $26.5 million in tax-exempt bonds to finance renovations at Augusta Municipal Building, angered most of the commission and many of their constituents when it appeared on a September meeting agenda.

A new plan approved by the commission Tuesday, however, will incorporate only a handful of city-owned properties and will avoid using the term slum, which Jim Plunkett, special city counsel over the project, said he could work around.

City Administrator Fred Russell said he was contacted by the Augusta Coliseum Authority about including James Brown Arena and Bell Auditorium in the designated area for potential benefits available to those facilities.

Russell also suggested including Fort Discovery and the city’s “pension” property at Fifth and Reynolds in the contiguous district. Fort Discovery owners have confirmed that an office-use tenant may create 400 jobs,

These properties were included in the revised plan.

Other properties commissioners agreed to include were the former Metro Augusta Chamber of Commerce building in the 600 block of Broad Street median; the former main Augusta-Richmond County Library, currently being remodeled as Augusta Utilities offices; and the 500 block between Greene and Telfair streets.

The arena and auditorium “definitely” ought to be included, said Commissioner Alvin Mason, who made the motion for the revised plan.

Once commissioners agree on the boundaries, a rewritten development plan will go before the public for input at a hearing, Plunkett said.

“We also need to have a hearing where this governing body is apprised of what is going on before reading about it in the media,” Lockett said. “We need to know what the big picture is going to look like.”

Proposed uses within the new area that would benefit from the designation might include a proposal to convert a railroad bridge at the pension site to a pedestrian crossing or constructing a parking deck or law enforcement substation, Plunkett said.

“I think it’s an excellent outcome. It’s going to allow for a public hearing; they’ll see our plan. It’s not ambiguous, it’s defined projects and properties,” Commissioner Donnie Smith said. “If we had done this from the start, we wouldn’t be in the position we are in now.”

Downtown business owner Mike Walraven, who has spoken out against the plan, said he was OK with limiting the designation to publicly-owned properties. “I’ve got no problem with that; just leave the privately-owned alone,” he said.

Commissioners Joe Jackson and Wayne Guilfoyle were absent when the vote was taken.

In another matter, the commission voted 6-4 to revoke the alcohol and business licenses of Skittlez, a gay black nightclub on Gordon Highway.

Commissioners Bill Fennoy, Marion Williams, Mason and Lockett voted no.

Skittlez was already on probation for an earlier incident involving a minor and an unpermitted dancer. Club attorney Jack Batson argued the city’s alcohol ordinance was too vague.

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