The Augusta Commission believes it has developed a way to avoid officially naming a portion of the downtown area a “slum.”
Jim Plunkett, the city’s special bond counsel, explained to commissioners this week that the city could simply list the section number in the legislation referring to a “slum” and not actually have to use the “four-letter word.”
Several weeks ago, City Administrator Fred Russell introduced a proposal that would define a 594-acre area in the downtown district as an Urban Redevelopment Area under the Department of Community Affairs.
This designation would allow the city to borrow $26.5 million in tax-exempt bonds and save at least $2 million in the renovation of the Municipal Building on Greene Street.
But the Augusta Commission quickly learned the proposal was too good to be true.
In order to receive the tax-exempt bonds, commissioners were initially told that 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.
For weeks, many downtown residents and business owners slammed the commission for even considering the “slum” designation.
Several commissioners told Russell and Plunkett that they thought the commission was ill-prepared to handle the public outcry over the city’s proposed designation.
“This commission didn’t know anything about it, so we kind of got slapped in the face with it,” Augusta Commissioner Alvin Mason said this week. “That’s not a good feeling to be slapped in the face, Jim. I can tell you that right now. It doesn’t feel good.
“At the end of the day, we are the decision makers and we are the ones who take all the blame and we don’t get much credit for much of anything. But that just kind of goes with the territory.”
Augusta Commissioner Bill Lockett agreed that the commission cannot be kept in the dark about future long-term plans.
“I’ve been told too many times, ‘You know, I can’t share this information with you,’” Lockett said. “But you want me to vote on it anyway. I want to know what is going on and not after the fact. We need to know the long-range plans.”
For example, Lockett said he has heard a lot of whispering about future of the former Fort Discovery building, but he has no idea what is being planned.
“If you say you want the Fort Discovery building, we need to know why you want it,” Lockett said. “We need to know what the big picture is going to look like. And we have been deprived of that.”
After Plunkett explained the commission would not actually have to use the word “slum” in the designation, Mason said he also wanted to address the proposal of a 594-acre area.
“I cannot support a designation that says slum, period,” Mason said. “And 500-some odd acres, that’s not going to happen.”
Instead, Mason proposed designating only certain buildings in the downtown area as being part of the proposed Urban Redevelopment Area.
He suggested including the Municipal Building and any of the other government buildings.
“I think the James Brown Arena and the Bell Auditorium definitely needs to be in there,” Mason said. “There are no two ways about it. And that pension property is getting on my nerves. It’s been sitting there in the depot, it’s been sitting there (on Reynolds Street) and we haven’t been able to do anything with it.”
Mason also suggested that Fort Discovery, the former central downtown library and the former Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce building be included in the proposed designation. He also insisted that the city hold public hearings on the proposal.
Plunkett apologized for his hand in proposing the Urban Redevelopment Area without properly discussing the proposal in full with the commission.
“Clearly, we overstepped. Clearly, we should have discussed this in advance,” Plunkett said. “I take some responsibility for that. It was a recommendation.”
The commission voted 8-0 to move forward with the designation, but the proposal would only include the specific properties listed by Mason and the proposal would not use the word “slum” in the plan. Commissioners Joe Jackson and Wayne Guilfoyle were absent for the vote.
In other action, the commissioners approved 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 a few weeks ago. 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 month.
But before the commission approved the proposal, Lockett had a few specific questions for Simon.
“You came before this body several weeks ago and you talked about this great favor that you would be doing for us out of the kindness of your heart,” Lockett said this week. “Now, I know that you are an extremely shrewd businessman and I’ve told you that before. So I began to wonder, what does Mr. Simon have up his sleeve this time?”
Simon simply laughed, but Lockett continued because he found it odd that Augusta Riverfront returned with the chiller proposal after it was not approved last month.
“After it was voted down, you came back a second time, out of the kindness of your heart, to tell us what a big favor that you are doing us,” Lockett said. “And that really puzzled me.”
Lockett asked what would happen if the city were to terminate its relationship with the Marriott in a few years.
Simon said he brought it back because he discussed it with the folks in his management company and he was “confused, quite frankly, as to why you vote something down that is so clearly in the benefit of, not only us, but the city.”
And Simon felt the city should consider saving as much money as possible with the convention center.
“Now, the power bill at the convention center, just your convention center, is between $225,000 to $250,000 a year just for power,” he said. “So anything we can do together to save some of that cost, I think it makes sense. “
The commission voted 8-1 in support of Simon’s chiller proposal. Augusta Commissioner Bill Fennoy voted against the motion and Mason was absent.
Lockett continued to joke with Simon as he exited the chambers.
“I just wanted to tell Mr. Simon, I’m sorry you didn’t get your 10 (votes),” Lockett said. “I thought you were going to get your 10 today.”
“I thought I was going to get 10, too,” Simon said. “Maybe one day.”