If the dream team of bankers, businessmen and politicians that make up the Augusta Neighborhood Improvement Corp. has an Achilles' heel, it is this: Not one of the nonprofit economic development agency's board members lives in the Laney-Walker neighborhood.
So there is no tangible link between those trying to redevelop this blighted area of the city and those affected most by the millions of dollars worth of rehabilitation, revitalization and redevelopment in the land between Seventh and 12th streets and Walton Way and Laney-Walker Boulevard.
The neighborhood has no voice.
"You've got a superstar group of people running the board, people who know what to do. I understand that," said Stanley Hawes, president of the revamped Laney-Walker Neighborhood Association. "But with a 20-member board, it seems like there should be some people on it who live in the area. We should have some voice."
ANIC's chairman, Bernie Silverstein, said there is an opening on the board and there is no reason why a resident from Laney-Walker can't fill that role.
"Number one, there was no intention to leave anyone out," Mr. Silverstein said.
But the perception has created a chorus of critics questioning the public plans and private motives of ANIC.
Through Jefferson Realty and a private holding company, ANIC has purchased more than 40 homes and lots in the Laney-Walker neighborhood. Residents, who don't know what's going on, have been skeptical and a little scared of people knocking on their door and offering to buy their homes, Mr. Hawes said.
"They don't know it's ANIC," Mr. Hawes said.
The secrecy has only added to the anxiety of Laney-Walker neighborhood residents who fear ANIC will move them out, tear down their homes and build new ones. Residents have told the Citizens Advisory Committee that they think ANIC will simply take their homes from them.
"People are scared," said Citizens Advisory Committee member Patrick Sizemore. "They don't know what's going on."
Hoping to stop the spread of gossip and misinformation, Robert Cooks, president and CEO of ANIC, has begun talking regularly with Mr. Hawes.
He has told Mr. Hawes and others that the secrecy prevented the inflation of the costs of real estate in the Laney-Walker neighborhood. "If the acquisition costs run too high," Mr. Cooks has said, "we won't be able to build and sell affordable houses."
Mr. Cooks has told residents that neither he nor ANIC board members are supporters of urban renewal, but he has also said that he will ask the city, when necessary, to use its power of eminent domain to acquire and demolish properties.
"If you take a house that could be worked on or a house that could be rehabilitated, I don't think you do a service by tearing it down and building a new one that costs twice as much," Mr. Hawes said.
Created last year from the remains of the defunct Augusta Housing Homestead Corp., ANIC has bet its future on redeveloping the Laney-Walker neighborhood first and other sections of the city later.
Board members have made it known that they would like to take over the daily operations of the city's Housing and Neighborhood Development Department. Whoever controls that department controls the distribution of state and federal Community Development Block Grants.
Control of those grants would be a powerful tool in ANIC's economic development tool box, city officials say, especially when working in areas such as the Laney-Walker neighborhood.
Some ANIC board members say the city department has been mismanaged and not used to its fullest potential. Housing and Neighborhood Development Director Keven Mack disagrees. He said all one has to do is look at his numbers:
In 1999, Mr. Mack's department rehabilitated 97 single-family homes, assisted 47 first-time home buyers with down payments, and repaired 116 multifamily homes in the Olde Town community.
"With ANIC, there is no track record yet," said Citizens Advisory Committee member Herbert Thomas. "We expect there will be a very good track record in the very near future. But there is no track record yet."
Reach Justin Martin at (706) 823-3552.
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