Augusta commissioners are faced with a big dilemma.
The city’s Urban Redevelopment Agency, which is the body established to issue a $28.5 million revenue bond to finance the Municipal Building’s ongoing renovations, has three members that must be replaced because they already serve on other city boards or authorities.
URA Chairman Henry Ingram, Augusta Technical College President Terry Elam and local businessman Larry Jones all have to be replaced.
The only two remaining members of the URA board are former Augusta Mayor Bob Young and local political gadfly Brad Owens.
Obviously, the commission desperately needs new members.
So, this week, when commissioners began discussing possible appointments to the board, Augusta Commissioner Grady Smith left some of the colleagues completely speechless with his nomination.
“I would like to propose a downtown business woman and property owner, who has been affiliated with District 1 for many years: Mrs. Bonnie Ruben,” Smith said.
This is the woman who owns a handful of vacant downtown buildings that have literally been left dank, dark, dusty and boarded-up for decades.
Now, don’t misunderstand. Everyone knows that Ruben has been running her family business, Ruben’s Department Store on Broad Street, since 1979, and the Ramada Plaza since 1989.
Her family has stuck with downtown Augusta through both the good and bad times.
Started in 1898, Ruben’s Department Store has been a fixture in downtown Augusta for more than 115 years.
But the truth is, Augusta also has to seriously look at all of the dilapidated downtown properties that she has been holding onto for years and years.
Ruben owns both the former J.C. Penney Co. building and the former Kress building on Broad Street.
Back in 1999, the Metro Spirit wrote a cover story called “Downtown Dinosaurs” that questioned the future of these properties.
At the time, the Spirit interviewed former Augusta Mayor Charles DeVaney about the problems facing downtown.
“If you go out and take pictures of the old J.C. Penney building or the old Kress building, you’re going to just shake your head and say, ‘What’s in it other than a tax write-off?’” DeVaney said in 1999, adding that the city once asked Westinghouse Savannah River Site to consider purchasing the former J.C. Penney building. “They took one look at that and said, ‘We don’t want that.’”
DeVaney was openly critical of absentee landlords such as Ruben, who have let these white elephants in downtown Augusta fall into serious disrepair.
“Some of these owners are always saying, ‘I’m waiting on the right tenant to come,’” DeVaney told the Spirit in 1999. “Well, if the building is deteriorated or continues to deteriorate, why would there ever be a tenant?”
So, let’s just put DeVaney’s comments about Ruben’s building in perspective.
DeVaney, who is now tragically deceased, said those comments 15 years ago.
He was worried about the state of those buildings not two years ago, not 10 years ago, but 15 years ago.
Can you imagine what he would think about those buildings still remaining empty in 2014?
Just last year, Historic Augusta added the former J.C. Penney’s department store to its 2014 Endangered Properties List.
In late April, fire struck the J.C. Penney’s building in the early morning hours and it took nine firefighting crews approximately one hour to contain the blaze.
The situation seems similar to the June 2001 fire at The Bayou bar and eatery, which was located along the 900 block of Broad Street. The building, which Ruben also owned, was gutted by fire and the business was completely destroyed.
But an entire year after the fire, the city sent Ruben a citation to appear in court because she had not made any significant improvements to the badly damaged building.
If DeVaney were alive today and could walk around downtown Augusta and take pictures of the old J.C. Penney building or the old Kress building, what would he think? He would likely do a lot more than just shake his head at the condition of those structures.
He would probably weep.
Augusta commissioners might want to keep that in mind when they consider Smith’s recommendation of Ruben for the URA board.
Downtown Augusta deserves better.