The beleaguered citizens in Bethlehem need our help.
Unlike most of us, they live in a neighborhood where the sound of gunfire is commonplace; thugs and drug pushers prey on the young; and abandoned and burned-out buildings fill the panorama. I don't care if the place is called "historic" - no one should have to live in an area like Bethlehem.
There is only one solution to the problem: an urban renewal effort that should have taken place years ago, yet is still mired in endless and meaningless debate over the need to hang on to an in-name-only local historic district designation. The citizens trying to exist amid the ruins have voiced their opinion on the subject countless times, and did so again in a public hearing in December. So why should a group of people who go home to sound and secure neighborhoods at the end of the day have any say in the decision?
I AM NOT worried that the history of one of Augusta's oldest, and once most vibrant, neighborhoods - in the form of worn down small houses not much bigger than most of our carports and garages - will survive and be protected by Bethlehem's status as a national historic district. Nor am I worried that city officials and developers will not move quickly to build new homes of larger size with a historic theme. What I am deeply concerned about is that the private and public investment so sorely needed in order to revitalize Bethlehem will not be forthcoming if senseless barricades stand in the way.
It is ludicrous to suggest that developers are willing to invest $49,000 in a 900-square-foot house - much less find someone who wants to live in one - when a few blocks away ANIC is building brand-new, two-story homes for $61,000. And, I might add, doing so with a portfolio of house plans appropriate to a national historic district identical to Bethlehem. But, you see, ANIC has an advantage in the important work they are doing in the Laney-Walker National Historic District: They have no local historic district designation - and all the cumbersome rules and regulations inherent in one - standing in their way, so they are able to cost-efficiently construct new houses with historic facades.
I HAVE WALKED through Bethlehem on several occasions, talked with the residents and seen with my own eyes the blight that consumes most of the neighborhood. Without qualification, I can say that I find no logical reason why the designation should be retained.
Yet a majority of my colleagues on the Historic Preservation Commission insist that the local historic district designation must be maintained at all costs - to such an extent that they are willing to forgo all the standard requirements used in our other local historic districts and thousands of other such districts across the nation. That's if the Augusta Commission will agree to retain the designation, and grant our board the right to review and approve or disapprove any new construction plans. It's the most asinine waste of time I can imagine, and serves absolutely no worthwhile purpose - especially when they know the majority of citizens in Bethlehem approve of what ANIC is doing, and want a similar effort to take place in their neighborhood.
My days as chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission for the third time, and service as the District 7 member, may be numbered when this article is published, but there comes a time when common sense and compassion for fellow citizens crying out for help must prevail over personal considerations.
If I was the Augusta commissioner representing Bethlehem when this issue comes to a head in February, I would say, "Thank you for your input, preservation commissioners," and move that the local historic district designation be rescinded.
THE URBAN renewal effort in Bethlehem is long overdue. Good, hard-working people, who had nothing to do with the devastation that surrounds them, are suffering. Worse, their children are suffering.
It's time for the Augusta Commission to make the decision to send in the bulldozers and follow-on construction teams.
(Editor's note: The writer, a retired military engineer officer and mortgage banker, serves as chairman of the Augusta-Richmond County Historic Preservation Commission.)