Can the “Golden Blocks” Shine Again?

The revitalization of Laney Walker and Bethlehem neighborhoods is well underway, but it could soon face a roadblock

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Can the “Golden Blocks” Shine Again?

As a young child, Neita Coleman spent many long summers in Augusta surrounded by her grandmother and a handful of adoring aunts and uncles in a close-knit community.

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“About 30 years ago, my aunt used to live off Chestnut Street, right down from Wrightsboro Road,” said Coleman, now 42. “It was years and years ago, before the neighborhood declined a little bit.”

For Coleman, Augusta is home. So, when she moved back to the area in 2010 and accepted a position in the tax assessor’s office, she was interested in putting down roots. But the years had not been kind to the neighborhoods she remembered as a child.

In 2010, approximately 33 percent of the housing in the city’s historic Laney Walker neighborhood was in poor to dilapidated condition and more than 20 percent of the parcels were vacant lots.

In Augusta’s Bethlehem neighborhood, not far from where Coleman’s aunt used to live, the statistics were even worse. About 70 percent of its housing was in poor to dilapidated condition and more than 30 percent of the parcels were vacant lots.

These historic black communities, which were once home to a diverse mix of thriving businesses and single-family residences nicknamed the “golden blocks,” were in a serious tailspin.

Not exactly the neighborhoods most single women would consider calling home.

However, almost a year after moving back to Augusta, Coleman began hearing a lot about the city’s Heritage Pine project on Pine Street in the Laney Walker neighborhood.

Heritage Pine is part of the city’s efforts to revitalize the two historic black neighborhoods using bonds that are reliant on future collections of the hotel-bed tax. The Laney Walker and Bethlehem communities are guaranteed $750,000 a year from the hotel-bed tax collections for 50 years.

To date, Augusta’s Housing and Community Development Department has spent approximately $8.5 million on this redevelopment effort by acquiring 275 lots, demolishing 97 units and completing 19 new homes. Another six houses are currently under construction.

“I began reading about Heritage Pine and I came by the area to talk to some of the people who were already here,” Coleman said.

What Coleman found was everything she loved about Augusta as a child: A neighborhood that treated everyone like family.

“Everybody was very friendly and wanted pretty much what I did, which was to reinvest in the neighborhood and move it forward again,” Coleman said, explaining that she began envisioning a wonderful future as she walked along Pine Street and saw the beautiful homes with wraparound porches and rocking chairs out front. “Even at that point, I knew this neighborhood was going to be part of a larger picture. I was familiar enough with the neighborhood that I could see some changes already happening for the better.”

With these new homes starting in the low $100,000s, Coleman reviewed the project’s incentive plan for homeowners and decided this was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

“I decided I wanted to help this neighborhood be even better than what it used to be when it flourished with families and children playing in the streets,” she said. “Back then, you could go up to the corner store with no problems whatsoever. I don’t know if those days are coming back yet, but at least it is coming to a point where it is more family friendly and more oriented to people such as myself. Whether it be singles, young couples, school-age people or professionals — blue-collar and white-collar alike — this is a neighborhood for everybody.”

 

But not everyone in Augusta is as confident about the future of this redevelopment project as Coleman.

At a recent Augusta Commission meeting to discuss a request by the city’s Housing and Community Development Department for the approval of a $2.5 million bridge loan, Commissioner Joe Jackson was shocked to learn that approximately $45,000 a month was going to pay consultants working on the project.

“How much more do we need to give a consultant when you are down to $2.5 million?” Jackson asked.

If approved, the $2.5 million bridge loan will allow the city to continue the neighborhood development until the next bond can be issued in 2015.

However, the $2.5 million must come out of the city’s $30 million reserve fund, which makes several commissioners extremely nervous.

“This is going to be a loan,” said Augusta Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle during the city’s Administrative Services Committee meeting on August 26. “How can we make sure on this bridge loan that we are guaranteed to get our money back?”

Augusta Deputy Finance Director Tim Schroer explained that this bridge loan is not a huge risk because the city has a debt service through the hotel-bed tax to pay for the bonds.

“There is always a potential for risk,” Schroer said. “But this is a nominal risk.”

Over the next few years, the project is scheduled to expand to include approximately 1,100 acres in areas along Holley Street, Wrightsboro Road, 12th Street, Twigg Street, Perry Street and 13th Street.

“This will not be just a five-year endeavor,” Housing and Community Development Director Chester Wheeler told the commissioners. “It will take us quite some time to turn around the challenges in the neighborhood in terms of quality of life.”

Last week, Augusta Commissioner Donnie Smith also questioned whether it was wise for the city to spend $6,000 a month to simply market the project to prospective buyers.

“So we are paying $72,000 a year in marketing and yet every house that we have down there is already sold,” Smith said. “What are they still marketing?”

Wheeler explained that it was part of the city’s mission is to “rebrand” the neighborhood.

“The neighborhood when we started was a very blighted neighborhood and there are large pockets of that still today,” Wheeler explained. “It requires a complete rebranding of the neighborhood so that persons who are interested in moving back in will have some comfort level of security… Unfortunately, these neighborhoods lost that over the years.”

According to Melaver McIntosh, a Savannah-based consulting firm hired to rebrand the Laney Walker and Bethlehem neighborhoods, its job is to help discard negative imagery connected with the neighborhood such as crime, blight and vandalism.

“Laney Walker/Bethlehem is at the physical heart of the city,” Patty McIntosh, founder of the marketing company, wrote in an August 21 memo to Wheeler and the Augusta Commission. “It is simply too physically proximate to the rest of Augusta simply to allow the process of demolition through disinvestment and neglect to reach its ultimate end.”

Areas that are deteriorating send out negative messages to the entire community and bring the city down with them, she wrote.

“Up until fairly recently, most Augustans had written off these two neighborhoods with a ‘do not resuscitate’ note tacked to all 1,100 acres,” she added. “If you were to ask what the vision was only a few years ago, you would have gotten blank stares or references to the way it used to be.”

This week, members of the city’s Adminstrative Services Committee unanimously voted to approve the $2.5 million bridge loan with the stipulation that Wheeler and the finance department must come up with a plan to leverage a revenue stream for future funding of the project.

“We will either need a continuing funding stream for this project or it will go dormant,” Jackson warned, adding that the city can’t rely on just the hotel-bed tax collections. “People have a misconception that it is a lump of money available right now. It is collected over 50 years and you can only borrow so much along the way.”

The Augusta Commission will face a final vote on the $2.5 million bridge loan on September 3. If the loan is not approved next week, Wheeler said it would result in “serious financial implications” for the project’s future.

 

Despite the criticism of the redevelopment project by some of their colleagues, Augusta commissioners Bill Fennoy and Marion Williams insist that the positives of the project far outweigh the negatives.

Walking down Pine Street surrounded by beautiful homes that could rival those in downtown Savannah or Charleston, Fennoy said people who were familiar with the neighborhood three years ago would never believe it was the same street.

“You would have to see what this street looked like before this project began to really appreciate what has been done here,” he said. “There was blight everywhere.”

Now to have energy efficient homes with brick columns, wrought iron fences, nine-foot ceilings and hardwood floors is truly miraculous, he said.

“I have been really impressed with the job that they have done so far and I think the fact that the project received a national award says it all,” Fennoy said, referring to the 2013 National Planning Excellence Award the Laney Walker/Bethlehem initiative received from the American Planning Association and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The project has also received recognition from <IT>Southern Living<IT> magazine and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia and has been highlighted in <IT>Georgia Trend<IT> magazine and Harvard University’s “Harvard Journal of Real Estate.”

Fennoy, along with Augusta Commissioner Bill Lockett, attended the National Planning Conference in Chicago in April to accept the award from the APA and HUD.

“In receiving the award in Chicago, there were citizens all across the country who came up to Commissioner Lockett and myself saying they would love something like this started in their city,” Fennoy said. “And this is happening in Augusta. Personally, I would like to see this project expanded to other parts of the city, areas like Sand Hills because they are a lot of blighted property up there. And parts of Harrisburg definitely need attention. So I think this is just a beginning of future projects here to come.”

Walking alongside Fennoy, Commissioner Marion Williams said he has never seen a city project like this in Augusta before.

“At first, I was a little worried because it was kind of a slow start, but I see the difference now when you look at Pine Street compared to other projects around town,” Williams said. “Other groups like Antioch (Ministries) and 30901 (Development Corporation), all of those did some new housing and some rebuilding, but it wasn’t to the standard of what is on Pine Street. This standard down here is really just overwhelming.”

But as a growing number of commissioners begin to question the continued funding of the redevelopment of the Laney Walker and Bethlehem neighborhoods, Williams is concerned this project might begin to lose some momentum.

“I’m cautious,” Williams said. “I want to make sure we can continue that same quality throughout the neighborhood. I don’t want to do anything that we can’t continue to do. And I’m open to looking at how we can do it better or how we can save as much money as we can, but we still need to maintain the quality of the project. So, I’m cautious. You have to be cautious when you are spending that kind of money.”

And Williams is the first to admit that “rebranding” the Laney Walker and Bethlehem neighborhoods won’t be easy.

“To me, I see it as the elephant I’m always talking about,” he said. “You have to take it one bite at a time. If you are talking about rebranding this entire area at once, that’s an uphill battle. It’s a process, but you have to keep working, working, working. Those neighborhoods didn’t get like that overnight. It is going to take time to build it back up.”

But citizens can’t just look to the city government to improve the neighborhoods’ images, Williams said.

“The people who have properties in the neighborhood, they need to do their part by cleaning up, cutting back the vegetation and beautifying,” he said. “We can’t let the city do everything. We, the people, have to roll up our sleeves and say, ‘Hey, I’m not going to let my neighborhood fall into disrepair.’”

In addition, the city has to be mindful of those residents who receive incentive plans to move into the newly renovated homes, Williams said.

“The building of the new houses and developments is always great, but it has to be affordable,” he said. “I don’t want to put a person in a house who is able to make the payments, but they can’t maintain it. Because the first four or five years with a brand-new house, you might not have any problems but, after that, you have to put some paint out there. You have to trim some shrubs and you have got to do some edging.

“You just can’t take a sling blade and go out there cutting grass in the front yard. You have to have a nice piece of equipment to work with. So, the economic dollars also play a big role. All of this goes to together.”

 

For more than a year, Coleman has enjoyed her beautiful new home surrounded by neighbors who have become much like family. Everybody watches after everyone else, she said.

“Our homeowners association meets at the model home next door every month, so we get to tell each other about what is going on and if there is any changes, such as if there has been any suspicious behavior by anybody or anything,” she said. “But I’ve been here a little over a year now — I moved in last February — and I’ve had absolutely no problems. It’s been wonderful.”

In fact, considering Pine Street is nestled between the railroad tracks and the medical district, Coleman fully expected to bombarded by noise, both day and night.

“It has been so quiet,” she said, laughing. “Even with the existing neighbors on 11th Street, there has been no excessive noise or loud parties or anything like that. It is just a very quiet, peaceful, close-knit community.”

But Coleman said it is crucial that the project continues to receive funding in order to guarantee its success.

Just a few doors down from Coleman’s house are two dilapidated homes in dire need of repair. In both cases, there are holes in the roofs, excessive water damage and the porches are beginning to collapse.

“From what I understand, there has been a lot of talk about trying to restore at least one of those homes, and the other trying to get at least the façade restored on it,” she said. “But, if not, there is no other choice than for those homes to be torn down. So those two are in the works for a restoration project. We are just trying to wait and see if contract negotiations work out for both the city and the potential vendor.”

Coleman hopes that the entire commission understands that they are not just investing in two historically black neighborhoods, but in the future of the entire city.

“This project is not just about bringing back Laney Walker and Bethlehem as a historic African-American neighborhood,” she said. “It is about this neighborhood being a part of Augusta and a part of downtown. It has historical significance.

“So, I think the money invested for marketing will actually pay itself off in the long run. It is not going to happen overnight, but in five, 10 or 15 years down the road, this is going to be an entirely different place. A place the whole city can be proud of.”

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