What happened to 30901? New plan must be a game-changer

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There’s been a lot of conversation about downtown Augusta being designated a “slum,” so the city could borrow cheap money to remodel the Municipal Building. Critics are missing the point. Bigger fish are ready for frying.

Augusta’s city center, which encompasses ZIP code 30901, lost 25 percent of its population between the 2000 and 2010 censuses. That represents 5,481 people who just packed up and moved elsewhere. Most of them were African-Americans who abandoned their cultural and historic ties to the city center.

WHAT IS LEFT behind is an aging, poorly educated population that suffers an unemployment rate more than twice the state rate. At the same time these people have fewer housing options, because 18 percent of the available housing stock disappeared. The number of owner-occupied dwellings declined 21 percent, and the inventory of rental properties shrank 19 percent.

Laudably, there is another effort to change that. The city most recently put its hopes along with millions of dollars into a project that covers two of the neighborhoods in 30901 – Laney/Walker and Bethlehem.

But the neighborhood decline waits for no one. The city’s Consolidated Plan says that, over the next five years, Laney/Walker and Bethlehem “are both projected to lose more than 10 percent of their current populations.”

The project focus to date has been on public investments from the city of Augusta; the Augusta Housing Authority; Georgia Regents University; the special-purpose local option sales tax,; Opportunity Zone and Enterprise Zone tax incentives; and nonprofits subsidized through the city’s U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program funds.

The bulk of the city’s direct participation is from $750,000 a year in room taxes, which works out to $37.5 million more in public funds over the next 50 years. Rather than spend the money as it comes in, the city is borrowing against future collections. By next year, more than a quarter of the money will be gone in just the first six years.

With the first $8 million, the city has invested heavily in consultants, bought a lot of land and constructed 18 houses. Yes, that works out to $420,000 for a house that sells for less than half that, plus is packaged with additional subsidies for homebuyers.

IT’S CLEAR THAT if the focus is on construction, the pace and capacity have to pick up dramatically. The city’s own consultant identified almost 1,100 buildings that currently are in poor, dilapidated and deteriorated condition in Laney/Walker-Bethlehem. Another 385 are listed in fair condition. Add to those numbers the hundreds of demolitions that are now unkempt vacant lots.

These numbers are staggering, and we’re swimming against a strong current. Even if you took the remaining $29.5 million in room taxes and built houses at the cost of $100,000 each, you’d only have 295 houses, and that’s over the life of a 50-year program. Leverage a few more apartments and houses and you might get up to 600 or 700 – still a long way from a finish line that is constantly moving.

My experience with HUD in rebuilding cities after Hurricane Katrina shows me that these are long-term initiatives. They are accomplished with bold political leadership and massive infusion of private capital. Augusta seems to recognize this, because on the website for the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem project is the claim that each public dollar will be leveraged “with 10 private investment dollars.” That would mean $375 million in private funds. But, now city leadership describes that as “an aspirational goal,” saying the actual match is more like 7-to1. However, new figures provided by the city show that after six years, the match is not even 1-to 1.

For the city of Augusta to be strong and viable, it needs a thriving city center with a strong blend of public-private investments. So how do we get there?

Attack the issue in a fully transparent manner. This is too serious for platitudes and fuzzy information. Public confidence is critical if you want private investors to put their skin in the game. Use every tool at your disposal; leave nothing on the table.

Have a well-articulated plan for a renaissance across the center city, not just two neighborhoods. Blight is spreading and waits for no one. Contain it!

CREATE AN environment for the private sector to rebuild the housing stock for those 58 percent of the people who want to be homeowners, and have a market-driven option for the 42 percent who prefer to rent.

Identify your private-sector partners. Secure public letters of commitment from them. Show exactly how each of the dollars the city and other public entities spend is indeed bringing in 10 new dollars from private sources.

Over the past several years, the city has spent millions of dollars of state and federal funds to reverse the tsunami of blight and neglect in ZIP code 30901. Every bit helps, but clearly the efforts to date have not had significant impact. They have not “changed the game.”

And it doesn’t help that the director of the city’s housing office complains about the press coverage he’s getting, when he’s paying a marketing firm $6,000 a month to create good PR. Chester Wheeler shouldn’t blame news media; he should fire his PR consultant if he’s so unhappy.

What we look for now is a 50-year plan that is a real game-changer. The evidence will not be in the few hundred houses that are built in two of many substandard neighborhoods. No, the evidence will be the hundreds of millions of dollars that flow from a private sector that has renewed confidence to invest in our city center – and beyond.

(The writer is a former mayor of Augusta; a former regional director for the Atlanta Region of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; and as HUD’s acting assistant deputy secretary for field policy and management.)

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Riverman1
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Riverman1 09/22/13 - 09:41 am
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Trying to Create a North Korean Like Fake Model Village

Absolutely. Bob Young is voicing in detail what some of us have been saying in the comments for quite a while. The only thing he forgot was the millions in infrastructure being spent there, too, in addition to the known funding. A fortune is being squandered in Laney-Walker-Bethlehem and the results are pathetic.

Let’s be realists. People have been and are moving out. They don’t want to live there. It’s an occurrence that often happens in cities and counties. The population moves to what they know is a better area. Cities are fluid. Old areas die as new ones are born.

Pouring tens of millions into the area with poorly accounted for tax money paying administrators, consultants and public relations firms is trying to reverse the predisposition of people to live in the best area they can afford. The whole concept is faulty. The results prove it. Wheeler is going to run through the $37.5 million in a few years, retire to the Bahamas while leaving the city with a huge debt and little to show for it.

seenitB4
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seenitB4 09/22/13 - 07:51 am
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Calling Paula Deen...Paula

Some need to call Miss Paula & find out her method of bouncing back....she was wise enough to FIRE some & then REHIRE others....you can't change the scent of a shunk.....you can't "make" people move or stay in a certain area...how soon we forget history.....GEEZ....Paula Deen come help please....we have fallen & can't get upppp!

Riverman1
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Riverman1 09/22/13 - 08:08 am
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You and Paula Deen

You and Paula Deen with the fried cornbread. Where was Oprah, her "friend," when all this started? Yes, it does fit here with the Laney Walker fiasco.

deestafford
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deestafford 09/22/13 - 08:58 am
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Except for Greene Street and the lower end of Broad there

is no housing other than projects in the area. It's not like Savannah where they have a significant historical district that goes for dozens of blocks with a tremendous number of old Victorian style houses that have been renovated and are selling for the high six figures and beyond. Other areas of the city bordering this section are as they have always been because of the class of the people living there for many, many generations.

Augusta's downtown area, with the exception of the lofts, is not going to attract homeowners. It's just not they type of place people want to invest and build a home. There is no "trendy" area to develop as there is in some other cities.

Finally, there is a difference in an area declining than being designated as a slum. No one wants to invest in a "slum"...especially if that designation was brought about to renovate a white elephant beyond what is really needed.

dichotomy
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dichotomy 09/22/13 - 10:02 am
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"Augusta’s city center, which

"Augusta’s city center, which encompasses ZIP code 30901, lost 25 percent of its population between the 2000 and 2010 censuses."

They weren't lost.....they were PAID to move to South Augusta....paid with taxpayer money to move and paid with Section 8 live there and not come back downtown.

The people running Augusta are just like the people running our school systems. Instead of facing reality they just continue to throw OUR money at the problems and hope something sticks. It hasn't, it won't.

And, in the process, they have sacrificed the entire southeast end of the county by draining the revenue, neglecting the services and infrastructure, and dumping the undesirables.

When is the last time you heard ANYONE say "I'm going shopping in South Augusta"....or....."I'm going out to dinner in South Augusta"?

The REAL story here is that South Augusta has become Laney Walker and NOBODY CARES.

countyman
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countyman 09/22/13 - 01:17 pm
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The facts clearly show people

The facts clearly show people are moving into the urban core...

Why do you think Artspace is coming to Augusta?

All you have to do is look at the residential underway in the CBD, new housing in Olde Town, and the recently sold homes in Laney Walker..

Why are people trying to portray demolishing housing projects with regular citizens moving out?

Thousands of GRU students can live at the GGHF site...

People continue to act like the $100 million Watermark or the new residential buildings on Greene street weren't proposed.. The economy is improving, and big announcements will be on the way.

There's still room at the lower end of Olde Town near Eastboundary that can improve.

Broad street still has a few empty buildings that can be turned into housing...

Artist Row on Broad street is very trendy, and can still improve..

Both Harrisburg and Laney Walker still have undesirable areas left..

soapy_725
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soapy_725 09/22/13 - 04:37 pm
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Get the poor blacks out of 30901. bring in the rich whites
Unpublished

Get the poor blacks out of 30901. bring in the rich whites

soapy_725
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soapy_725 09/22/13 - 04:38 pm
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Buckhead City in 30901. Soho in 30901. Dram a little dream w/me
Unpublished

Buckhead City in 30901. Soho in 30901. Dram a little dream w/me

soapy_725
44131
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soapy_725 09/22/13 - 04:39 pm
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Mayor Boob, where was this wisdom when you ran ARC?
Unpublished

Mayor Boob, where was this wisdom when you ran ARC?

soapy_725
44131
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soapy_725 09/22/13 - 04:40 pm
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Sounds like a run for office. Election pontificating.
Unpublished

Sounds like a run for office. Election pontificating.

soapy_725
44131
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soapy_725 09/22/13 - 04:40 pm
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Mayor Boob should have taken over the CCNT job.
Unpublished

Mayor Boob should have taken over the CCNT job.

soapy_725
44131
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soapy_725 09/22/13 - 04:41 pm
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Mayor Boob. The New Sage of the South. Another movie?
Unpublished

Mayor Boob. The New Sage of the South. Another movie?

Gage Creed
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Gage Creed 09/22/13 - 07:33 pm
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From the LTE, "Augusta’s

From the LTE, "Augusta’s city center, which encompasses ZIP code 30901, lost 25 percent of its population between the 2000 and 2010 censuses. That represents 5,481 people who just packed up and moved elsewhere."

This statement sees to fly in the face of what some shysters are regurgitating as gospel.

countyman
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countyman 09/22/13 - 08:36 pm
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The same people live outside

The same people live outside of Richmond County, but swear they knie everything about. If you lived in the county then you would know both Gilbert Manor and Underwood homes were both demolished.

GnipGnop
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GnipGnop 09/22/13 - 10:11 pm
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And where do you think those people relocated to?

They didn't move into the CBD. Gentrification is happening in Augusta. Sadly they can't see the forest for the trees. Once you move all these section 8 people from downtown to south Augusta and the property values decrease so will your tax base. Of course by then the real people that run the downtown area will have made their bank and be laughing while they deposit it. That is the facts as far as Augusta goes....

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