Augusta’s downtown is not a “slum”… yet

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The Augusta Commission decided a 594-acre area in the downtown district is not a “slum.”
At least not yet.
City Administrator Fred Russell explained to the Augusta Commission this week that it could establish an Urban Redevelopment Area that would allow the city to borrow $26.5 million in tax-exempt bonds to renovate the Municipal Building on Greene Street.
But, in order to establish the Urban Redevelopment Area under the Department of Community Affairs and receive the tax-exempt bonds, the city would have to accept a proposed “slum” designation according to the Urban Redevelopment Law, which was initially adopted by the Georgia General Assembly in 1955.
Augusta Commissioner Bill Lockett told his colleagues that designating such a large section of the downtown area a “slum” did not sit well with him at all.
“When I first became aware of this, I knew it did not pass the smell test,” Lockett said, adding that he thought the city administrator needed to “go back to the drawing board.”
Several business owners and residents of the downtown area attended Tuesday’s meeting, but only Lincolnton, Ga., resident Al Gray officially requested to speak to the commission regarding the “slum” designation.
Gray is president of Cost Recovery Works, Inc., which according to the organization’s website is a private business that is “committed to providing clients with superior returns by offering proactive project auditing and controls methods geared to reduce project costs.”
Gray told the commissioners during the September 17 meeting that the “slum” designation would be an enormous mistake.
“When words no longer are required to carry their true meaning and evolve in meaning the opposite, all men and women should shudder, for in that immoral state blurs the meaning of right and wrong,” he said. “Flush the word ‘slum’ and let’s banish the much overused word ‘impossible’ in describing the situation in Augusta. Let’s do it now. Do it with conviction. And do it together.”
As the audience applauded Gray’s comments, Augusta Commissioner Donnie Smith explained that he understood the “slum” designation wasn’t popular, but he also stated that the Municipal Building is in dire need of renovation.
“We have an obligation to protect our employees and provide a safe environment for them to work in,” Smith said. “If anybody has been in our IT building for any business, when I go over there, I come out and break out in hives and I can’t breathe for a little while because of the mold. And we’ve asked our employees to work in that environment for a long period of time. So I will not back down from the fact that we need to do this project to look out for our employees.”
Several of the commissioners asked Gray’s advice on how the city could receive tax-exempt bonds without having to create the Urban Redevelopment Area.
Finally, Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver asked Gray to provide the city with some references and background information on his organization. The mayor explained that the city has been approached by people in the past claiming to be “experts” in a particular field and that was not always the case.
Copenhaver was also curious about where Gray resides.
“Are you a Richmond County taxpayer?” Copenhaver asked. “Where is your place of residence?”
Clearly irritated, Gray did not answer the question. Instead, he jokingly replied, “My final resting place will be Westover Cemetery if that matters to you, sir.”
In response, Copenhaver quipped, “You ain’t dead yet.”
The city’s bond consultant, Dianne McNabb, said she understood the public’s concern over the proposed “slum” designation, but she assured the commissioners that it was not a label that would haunt the city.
“I’m not sure how anybody coming into the city would ever know that a particular area was designated as a slum,” McNabb said. “It doesn’t appear on the property tax bill… It is not something that appears anywhere.”
Several other cities across Georgia including Sandy Springs, Marietta, Union City, Roswell, East Point and Norcross have all declared themselves slums in order to qualify for tax credits, according to the Department of Community Affairs.
“Certainly, in these other areas, they haven’t been impacted by that designation,” she said.
In fact, McNabb said there might be a way that Augusta could simply reference the Georgia code and not specifically include the word “slum,” when adopting the Urban Redevelopment Area.
Copenhaver said that was exactly what he had been looking into this week.
“I think that is the direction that we are headed,” he said. “I think there is an opportunity to take that word out… I understand why people have heartburn with the word. If there is an opportunity to reference that and not use the word, I think that would go a long way towards helping the situation.”
In order to explore that option more and further discuss the impacts of an Urban Redevelopment Area, the mayor scheduled a work session on September 30 at 1 p.m. in the commission chambers.
Commissioner Bill Fennoy, who represents District 1, which includes the downtown area, said it would take a lot to convince him to vote for the proposed “slum” designation.
“I received numerous phone calls and e-mails and I have talked to the business owners and property owners that will be impacted by this area,” Fennoy said, “and I have yet to run across anybody that supports some of the language that is in this grant application.”
In other actions, the commissioners did not approve a request by Augusta Riverfront LLC to purchase a centralized chiller plant to cool both the Marriott Hotel and the Augusta Convention Center.
In the proposal, Augusta Riverfront would purchase the chiller and pay for the installation of the pipes to connect with the hotel and conference center.
“We will spend the money,” Augusta Riverfront President Paul Simon told commissioners last week. He estimated the total cost would be about $700,000. Augusta Riverfront would also install separate meters on the chiller, so the hotel would be responsible for its own bill, as would the city.
“This is beneficial to both the city and to us, at no cost to the city,” Simon insisted last week.
But, in the end, there was not enough support on the commission to approve Simon’s request.

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