Originally created 09/27/00

Lenders' sincerity in doubt



Sheila Nelson had read and heard a lot about Augusta Neighborhood Improvement Corp. and its commitment to rebuilding the Laney Walker neighborhood.

She knew that the presidents of almost all of the local banks served on the economic development group's board of directors, and she knew of their publicly stated promise to help restore the area block by block.

So she was quite surprised when she found the banks weren't willing to put their money where their mouths were.

Even though she has invested more than $150,000 of her own money into an apartment complex on the corner of Twiggs and Hill Streets in the Laney Walker neighborhood, Ms. Nelson said her request for a business loan was rejected by every bank she went to.

The bank officials purportedly told her investing in the Laney Walker area was a risk.

She told ANIC board member and state Rep. Ben Allen what happened, and he took her and her story to Monday afternoon's monthly board meeting.

"The banks apparently are not willing to do business with people who want to do business in the Laney Walker neighborhood," he said. "This concerns me a little bit because you have private investors who want to do something in the Laney Walker area, but not one bank was willing to step up to the plate and do something. Perhaps they're going to do the same thing to ANIC."

When the economic development group was created, almost all of the local banks - First Union, Bank of America, Wachovia, Regents and SunTrust - pledged their full support.

"It concerns me," Mr. Allen said. "If you tell ANIC that you are going to do business in this community but then reject a private citizen who's willing to put $150,000 to $200,000 of her own money into a housing project, but then you're telling her that there's too much risk in the Laney Walker area. I think mixed signals are being sent out."

Robert Osborne, president of Wachovia, said Ms. Nelson should not have been rejected by his bank.

"I don't know if she talked to anybody at our bank, but I can tell you if anybody said to her that we didn't want to do business in the Laney Walker area, that (means my employees) ain't listening to me," Mr. Osborne said. "I don't know what happened, and I don't know any specifics, but I'll give her my card before I leave, and I'll be glad to sit down and talk with her. That's not the impression we want to give at all, and if we are, it's a mistake."

Jim Tyler, president of Bank of America, said he thinks Ms. Nelson's situation is an isolated incident."We'd be foolish not to be involved in this," Mr. Tyler said. "Regulators researching our commitment to the Community Reinvestment Act, they don't look at what we say we do, they look at how many loans we make. If we talk but don't make loans, the regulators are asking us why."

Bernie Silverstein, chairman of ANIC's board of directors, said he is confident the banks are committed to restoring the Laney Walker neighborhood.

State Sen. Charles Walker agreed.

"I think once we change the culture of the area we want to develop, we will change the attitudes of a lot of investors," Mr. Walker said. "The banks have to be involved for this project to succeed. If they don't participate, this project will not be successful."

Ms. Nelson said she's still perplexed by the situation.

"This is my hometown," Ms. Nelson said. "It's always been one of my dreams to help put back in my community."

"I know a lot of people who really want to move into the Laney Walker area," Ms. Nelson said. "I wonder what's going to happen down the road: Are we really going to do something about the Laney Walker area?"

Reach Justin Martin at (706) 823-3552.