Everybody has one. An opinion, that is. And to say opinions are divided on calling downtown Augusta a slum in order to create an Urban Redevelopment Area and save money on financing the $40-plus million renovation of the Marble Palace is an understatement. Some folks think the negative reaction to the word is much ado about nothing, while others think it’s the devil in disguise.
Most city officials, including Mayor Deke Copenhaver, City Administrator Fred Russell and Augusta Commission members, say “slum” is just a word legislators put in the law authorizing urban redevelopment 50 years ago, a meaningless anachronism the media latched onto to create controversy.
“YOU CAN CALL ME AL”: “For $2 million, you can call me a bum,” said Commissioner Corey Johnson.
Commissioner Alvin Mason said he’s not scared or worried about the word “slum.”
YOU CAN BELIEVE WHAT YOU READ IN THE PAPER: Commissioner Bill Lockett wants to know why the plan was sprung on them out of the blue.
“Why is it that I had to find out from print media that this was in the works?” he asked.
BLUE SKY PIE: Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle is opposed because the plan calls for part of the bond money to be paid back with the next round of special purpose local option sales tax funds although they haven’t even been approved.
BARKING UP THE WRONG TREE: Commissioner Marion Williams isn’t worried about the word. It’s the authority that would oversee it that bothers him.
“It’s not just the slum name,” he said. “That’s an issue, but that’s minor when you think about what they’re trying to do. I’m not giving power to somebody when I don’t know who I’m giving it up to. Anytime you’re creating an authority, you’re losing power. I’m not going to support it. It’s the tail wagging the dog.”
“TALK IT UP AND GIVE ME THE GO ROUND ROUND”: Downtown businesswoman Bonnie Ruben asks why the city is spending $40 million redoing the Marble Palace but won’t clean up downtown.
“Beer cans, food wrappers, weeds, ankle-deep water when it rains, and plenty of plain old muck and dirt – welcome to the Garden City,” she said. “We have so much potential but stay stuck in the ditch – now the slum ditch. I don’t care what kind of spin they attach to it. It is totally negative and hurts future development. To make matters worse, they are not even using the money to improve the area that will take the hit for the negative terminology. We suffer on Broad Street while they get a renovated Marble Palace – and for what?”
ALL WE NEED NOW IS A UFO: Commissioners are expected to vote on designating the Urban Redevelopment Area and receive the proposed downtown redevelopment plan at Tuesday’s commission meeting.
When I noticed Lincoln County resident Al Gray is on the agenda to speak on the matter, I asked him via e-mail to give me a pithy preview of what he plans to say.
“Pithy? Me?” he replied. “OK. When the Augusta Chronicle’s Susan McCord unleashed the bombshell that Mayor Copenhaver might sign an Urban Redevelopment resolution declaring Augusta’s CBD a SLUM, the property rights warning lights and sirens were heard all the way up in the pinewoods of Lincoln County. Fred Russell’s resolution looked like a 6 layer cake festooned with so many abbreviations like URD, URA and URP that it made me think my URO doc might need to make an emergency call. Since he was unavailable, I asked the clerk of the Augusta Commission if ‘the man in camo’ from Lincoln County could butt in yet again in their bi-weekly circus down in that marble-walled shack. I guess she said yes.
“Well, what I want to make folks think about this time is a deceased board that will be resurrected like Lazarus, unlimited sort-of-devious powers that commissioners might sleep through, how 99.75 percent of Augusta can be bled dry in service to a district smaller than a truck farm, and maybe how we should not hold it against Bill Clinton for pondering the meaning of ‘is’ when the mayor is ready to describe $100’s of millions in glittering new buildings as so many shacks in a slum.”
ARE THEY REALLY LONGING FOR THE GOOD OL’ DAYS? At Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners also will discuss whether to put the vehicle and equipment maintenance contract with First Vehicle Services on a month-to-month basis and seek proposals from other companies or bring the operations in-house.
Apparently, the ones who want to bring it back in-house don’t know or have forgotten the rampant theft of tires, vehicle parts and gasoline that occurred when the garages were run by Richmond County until 1994. Shop managers, for the most part, were unqualified political appointees moved over from other departments such as recreation.
Inventory control was non-existent. Hundreds of tires went missing, some of them left the garage under deputies’ arms. Employees and prison inmates working at the Tobacco Road garage were making barbecue grills and selling them. And everybody who was anybody in Richmond County government got free gasoline at the city pumps and their vehicles washed and serviced.
When The Augusta Chronicle started poking around in the records, garage employees loaded them on a truck to be dumped at the landfill, but somebody blew the whistle, and Georgia Bureau of Investigations agents stopped the truck. The whistleblower got fired. The shop manager and a couple of other employees were arrested and charged, but nobody went to jail.
DRIP DRIP DRIP: Speaking of gasoline, four commissioners have used 1,129.68 gallons, or $3,855.61 worth, of gasoline this year courtesy of taxpayers. Bill Fennoy used $830.14 worth; Johnson $882.36; Williams, $1,266 and Grady Smith $877.11, according to city records. In 2008, seven commissioners pumped $10,000 worth of gasoline using city-issued Fuelman cards.
UP, UP AND AWAY: Augusta businessman Brad Usry could become the third candidate for mayor next year.
“I have been entertaining the idea,” said the president of Fat Man’s Mill Café and Enterprise Mill Events. “I was approached by some people I respect very much who asked me to consider it, which I said I would do.”
Mason and state Sen. Hardie Davis have already announced their candidacies.
Usry’s son, Havird, is involved with the businesses, and Usry finds himself much at the same stage his mother, Carolyn Usry, was when she decided to run for the Augusta City Council the first time and gave Brad and his sister, Jan, more responsibility in running Fatsville Chow and Fat Man’s Forest on Laney-Walker Boulevard.
Carolyn Usry was a hard-working councilwoman who served 14 years in the 1980s and ’90s. She died in 2007.
In Columbia County, Doug Duncan said he’s considering running for the District 1 commission seat now held by Ron Thigpen.