Sunday, October 30, 2011

Land Swaps, Bonds and Air Rights: The Parking Deck Saga Continued

The parking deck at 9th and Reynolds Streets
Oct. 30, 2011
Dustin Goads

Since City Stink first ran the story this past Wednesday on the Reynolds Street parking deck saga (The Paking Deck of Wonders), the proverbial fecal matter has hit the fan. Unfortunately many people in the media are still missing the big story and some have chosen to divert attention away from the main issues and  toward State Sen Bill Jackson, implying that City Stink was accusing him of wrong doing and "dragging his name through the mud."  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Sen. Jackson's name only came up because public property records show he was involved in a land swap with the city so that a small 0.07 acre parcel that he had owned with a  business associate for decades could be secured for the new parking deck at 9th  and Reynold's Street. The real issue that is being ignored is the inflated price the city ended up paying for that 0.07 parcel and its implications for 933 Broad Investment Co LLC (aka Augusta Riverfront, LLC), NOT that Sen. Jackson walked away with any huge pay-off or was somehow tipped off by someone to hit it big in land speculation. If you go back and read the article you will find that City Stink never made any such accusations.

Explaining the Land Swap Transaction
State Sen. Bill Jackson and a long time business associate, who is now deceased, had owned a 0.07 acre parcel at the corner of 9th and Reynold's Street since 1969. It just so happens it was right where the city of Augusta needed to build a new parking deck. Instead of an outright sale of the property to the city, an arrangement was set up called a  1031 Exchange. When you hear the term "Land Swap", this is what they are referring to. These are quite common in the business world, though not quite as common for municipal governments to be a party to. But it made good business sense for Sen Jackson to want to avoid paying capital gains on the outright sale of the property, since he says he was not particularly interested in selling. No one faults Sen Jackson for making a sound business decision. The 1031 allowed him to defer any capital gains. It also allowed for more purchasing power for the two parcels he wanted in the exchange, since capital gains would have gobbled up 15% of the profit from the sale.

However, the city didn't just swap out land with Sen Jackson that it already owned. The state Senator was interested in two small parcels at the corner of 13th street and Reynolds street adjacent to his Tile Center business. Those parcels were owned by K&W Investment Co. You can view the property records here: 1311 Reynolds St parcel and 35 13th St parcel. But the thing is, to acquire these two parcels, the city paid out $119,000. And that is the main point. Sen Jackson just got the land.. no money. The $119,000 was held in escrow by a 3rd party intermediary while the transactions were being finalized. Even though Sen Jackson didn't walk away with a big fat check in the deal, he did get a larger parcel that was of considerable more value to his business than the tiny 0.07 acre orphaned parcel he transferred to the city at 9th and Reynolds Streets.

 Now a particular talk radio personality was making it sound like the land swap was at the very best a "wash" for Jackson or that he may have even lost money on the deal. Not quite. Acquiring the crucial corner parcel at 13th St and Reynolds St gave Jackson increased visibility and access for his Tile Center business and thus increased the value of all of  his land there. So Jackson made quite a good deal for himself, not faulting him with that, any good businessman would do the same thing. The question here is, in all of this, did the taxpayers make a good deal?

How Augusta Riverfront, LLC is the MAIN Beneficiary of the Land Swap
As we have said before the main player in the parking deck, aside from the city of Augusta, is Augusta Riverfront, LLC. This is  the company who will manage not only the new parking deck, but the new TEE Center. They also own the Marriott hotel adjacent to the new TEE center. As we first told you, the land where the TEE center parking deck now sits is owned by a company called 933 Broad Investment Co, LLC, which we found is a shell company of Augusta Riverfront, LLC. This means that the company who wants to manage the parking deck (at a yearly fee of $25,000) actually owns the land where the deck sits, EXCEPT for that one 0.07 acre parcel involved in the land swap with State Sen Bill Jackson.

As we just told you, the city paid out $119,000 in that exchange. What that did was essentially inflate the land values where the parking deck sits, establishing a price point of $1.7 million per acre! And who owns most of that land? 933 Broad Investment Co LLC (aka Augusta Riverfront, LLC). So that puts them in a pretty sweet position over this deck. They already own the ground floor of the deck, which means they get the revenue generated from the spaces on the first level, and now they want a $25,000 contract to manage the rest of the deck. Many city leaders are crying foul and saying they were mislead and want ALL of the land where the deck sits under city ownership. But not so fast. Augusta Riverfront, LLC can now assert that their land is worth $1.7 million per acre if the city wants to buy them out. That could also be used as powerful leverage in negotiating a sweet heart management contract for managing the  new Reynolds's street deck and the one adjacent to the Marriott.

What Exactly Were Commissioners Told?
When several commissioners were told that the city did not own the land where they just built a $12 million parking deck, they were dumbfounded. It seems as though just about everyone on the commission was of the belief that Augusta Riverfront, LLC or its subsidiary had already donated their parcels of  land for the deck. But that never happened. Commission meeting minutes from 2009 clearly show that city administrator Fred Russell told commissioners on multiple occasions that Augusta Riverfront, LLC or its subsidiary had AGREED to donate the land to make way for the parking deck. You can view those commission meeting minutes here: Commission Meeting Minutes from 2009 Regarding Acquisition of Land for Parking Deck.

It makes sense that Augusta Riverfront, LLC would agree to donate the land for parking deck. They were getting a sweetheart deal on the TEE Center and the management contract to operate it with no risk to them. In fact they were getting a $350,000 per year subsidy from taxpayers to run the facility. And the hotels owned by Augusta Riverfront, LLC are adjacent to the TEE Center and thus will get exclusive access to the facility. And don't forget that the city forgave Augusta Riverfront, LLC of a $7.5 million UDAG loan that the city had acquired on their behalf back in the early 1990s for construction of the Radisson, now Marriott. So it is very plausible that commissioners would expect that Augusta Riverfront, LLC would "do the right thing" and donate the land for the parking deck.

The Deal was Changed but Someone Forgot to Tell the Commissioners
December 7, 2009 was when the crucial vote was taken that approved the deal over the TEE Center and parking deck. The meeting minutes show that once again commissioners were told by Fred Russell that Augusta Riverfront, LLC had agreed to donate the land and that the city would only need to acquire two other parcels, one from a "private individual" (that was State Sen Bill Jackson) and WAGT (though none of the actual parking deck sits on the former WAGT parcel). Commissioners voted to approve the deal based on this information. But somewhere along the way things changed, but commissioners were never told. It also was revealed that a much cheaper option for surface parking instead of a costly deck was rejected by Fred Russell without the knowledge of commissioners. Commissioners were not even aware of a parking study that proposed the cheaper surface lot option. Chris Thomas of WDRW reports on this below:

So somewhere along the line the deal was changed  to where the city only acquired air rights above the ground floor of  the $12 million parking deck. But apparently commissioners were never told that the deal had changed. And was the parking deck even necessary in the first place? There is now a push among at least one Augusta Commissioner to clamp down on downtown parking to hopefully steer people to the new deck. So why was this deck needed? And who told the city it was absolutely necessary to build this deck?

Follow the Bonds, Follow the Money and Connect the Dots
The reason given now by city attorneys as to why the land was not donated by Augusta Riverfront, LLC is so that tax free bonds could be used for construction. But that begs the question: Why did the city need to purchase the 0.07 acre corner parcel from Sen Bill Jackson for the deck? If keeping the land under the control of Augusta Riverfront, LLC allowed for tax free bonds to be used for construction, then shouldn't they have purchased that land from Sen Jackson instead of the city to consolidate ownership? But as we previously told you, the lopsided land swap with the city valued that parcel at $119,000, which then inflated the surrounding land values (owned by Augusta Riverfront, LLC) to $1.7 million per acre. How convenient.

The other question that begs to be asked is why The DDA (Downtown Development Authority) was taken out of the process over the issuance of the bonds for the parking deck? The DDA is a governmental authority whose original purpose was issuing and servicing bonds for downtown parking decks.. but NOT this particular downtown parking deck. Why?
Brad Owens, the founder of Augusta Today and a former member of the DDA and a frequent critic brings up the following points regarding the bonds:

The key here has been said a few times but folks have missed it. Let me put the two together here for everyone:
1.) City lawyers say the deal was changed so tax-free bonds could be used for construction.
2.) His (Mayor Copenhaver) comment was the bond attorneys would have never let matters stand if there were something wrong with the deal.
Now, here are a few bones that need to be dug up on this based on the excuse that has been given;
1.) WHO issued the bonds?
2.) WHO is servicing the bonds?
3.) WHICH attorney is handling this and what are the fees being charged?
4.) ARE these "double barrel" bonds?
5.) WHICH bank is holding the money for these deals?
6.) WHAT interest rate/fee/surcharge is being charged by the bank?

Incompetence or Collusion?
It appears that many mistakes were made in this process involving the parking deck by the city and each one of those mistakes were to the great benefit of Augusta Riverfront, LLC. So that begs yet another question: Was this just yet another case of incompetence by city officials, or was this collusion among some key people on the city payroll and Augusta Riverfront, LLC to orchestrate a very lop-sided deal that now leaves the taxpayers with a $12 million parking deck on land they don't even own? Also, was someone at the city involved with the inflation of the value of the land where the deck now sits to benefit Augusta Riverfront, LLC and to the detriment of the taxpayers? Why were commissioners told by Fred Russell on multiple occasions, that Augusta Riverfront, LLC had agreed to donate the land only for that to change without the commissioners being made aware of the change?

Why didn't the DDA issue the bonds, especially when financing parking decks is the original reason it was created by the state in the first place? Was this done in an effort to remove scrutiny and oversight from the bonds?

And why isn't Mayor Copenhaver more outraged over this whole sordid affair? He seems to be more mad at the messengers for exposing the meeting minutes that show that commissioners were mislead over ownership of the parking deck land. The mayor had this to say: "Why do some people always want to look back at matters? We should be looking ahead."

We could not disagree more with mayor Copenhaver. Public officials should be outraged over this. The mayor may want all of this to just go away but we will most certainly not just look the other way on this when millions of dollars in public money are involved and especially not when it appears the process may have been rigged from the very beginning. We would hope that mayor Copenhaver would share the concerns of the public over this.

You can be assured there is more to come on this parking deck scandal... so stay tuned.
**Update** The connection between 933 Broad Investment Co LLC and Augusta Riverfront LLC:
933 Broad Investment Co LLC
Augusta Riverfront LLC

Related articles:
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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Truth is a Funny Thing in Aberdeen, MD When it Comes to Publicly Financed Ballparks

Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, MD

Augusta, GA       **Updated on Friday, Oct 14th, 2011**
Some of you may remember last Monday, October 3rd, when some big wigs from Ripken Baseball flew down to Augusta with current Aberdeen, MD mayor Mike Bennett in tow to once again pitch their multi-purpose baseball stadium to select civic leaders and members of the media. The Augusta Chronicle covered their visit in this article: GreenJackets owners try to save downtown stadium plan.

Their stated purpose was to "dispel accusations that Ripken Baseball left Aberdeen in financial trouble when the team joined with the city and state to build a stadium in 2002,"  and to  "to clear up misconceptions and rumors", according to The Augusta Chronicle article.

 Apparently, the supposed "rumors" they were talking about stems from  a 2007 Baltimore Sun article that claims that the financial arrangement between Ripken Baseball and the City of Aberdeen to build a new ballpark in 2002 left the city struggling to meet debt service payments in subsequent years. In fact the article claimed that the city had to dip into its general fund to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to service stadium debt because expected revenues were not materializing. Most importantly, adjacent development that the stadium was supposed to spur,  was also not materializing as city officials had initially been led to believe. The city was apparently counting on tax revenues from that adjacent private development to recoup their costs in the stadium.

At the Augusta PR event, Aberdeen mayor Mike Bennett said this about the 2007 Baltimore Sun article as quoted in The Augusta Chronicle: “As a citizen at the time, I can tell you that the city folks were not that happy with the things that were written. Most of us knew that the things in the article weren’t correct,” Bennett said. “Yes, the city has debt there. We've always had debt there. It is what it is. We were part of the process of building the stadium and we knew there would be debt and things are moving forward.”   Mr Bennett disputed that the city was losing money each year on the stadium.

Mr Bennett also said in The Chronicle article: "'We have a great relationship with Ripken Baseball. Ripken Baseball has a great relationship with us". 

However,  no one was suggesting that there was any bad blood between the city of Aberdeen and Ripken Baseball. And all evidence suggests that Ripken Baseball does a great job at running minor league baseball clubs. In fact, The Aberdeen Iron Birds consistently sell out Ripken Stadium. The problem is, with all that said, the city of Aberdeen still consistently loses money on the stadium. The city may very well be extremely happy with Ripken Baseball's ability to deliver a quality product, but that doesn't negate the fact that the financial arrangement between the company and the city of Aberdeen over the ballpark was decidedly lop-sided in favor of Ripken Baseball. The company received the bulk of revenues earned from the stadium, and the remainder going to the city could not even cover the debt payments.

In fact, documents forwarded to City Stink, appear to confirm the claims made in the Baltimore Sun article. According to the City of Aberdeen Operating and Capital Budgets (Actuals) for fiscal years 2005 thru 2012 shows that indeed the city was losing money each fiscal year on the stadium; so much in fact that the city was having to dip into its general fund each year to service stadium debt. In FY 2010 the city had to transfer $414,102 from its general fund to meet its obligations on their debt on the stadium, and the city's tax digest was not growing proportionally despite the presence of the stadium to cover these costs. In fact, the adjacent developments that were supposed to boost the tax digest to cover the stadium's cost and even yield a profit for the city were chronically delayed and many elements were cancelled.

Below is a clickable graphic from the budget report showing the general fund transfers. Pay close attention to the next to last line that reads "transfers from general fund".. you will notice that every year since 2007 when numbers were available for this report, the city had to transfer hundreds of thousands of dollars from the general fund to cover stadium debt and they project to do so next year. In total, since 2007, the city has transferred more than $2,000,000 from its general fund to service stadium debt. That's not counting the years between 2002  and 2007 when the city was losing even more on the stadium. The stadium was supposed to pay for itself. It clearly has not. (click the image below to enlarge):

This data seems to counter the rhetoric of mayor Mike Bennett at the Augusta PR junket. Was the mayor simply ignorant of his city's own budget and unaware of these numbers? Or was he purposefully trying to engage in political spin and obfuscate the real data in an attempt to rewrite history  to help Ripken Baseball sell a similarly lop-sided financial partnership to Augusta civic leaders that might put the city at financial risk for a new ballpark? 

For a city the size of Aberdeen to have to dip consistently into their general fund year after year to the tune of an average of   $300,000 seems to be indeed a financial millstone rather than the financial boon that stadium spin doctors were making it out to be. The numbers don't lie. And Mr Bennett, upon assuming office in 2007, even wanted to renegotiate  the terms with Ripken Baseball to lessen the city's financial losses. He was partly successful in being able to renegotiate slightly better terms. That alone would seem to indicate that the mayor knew the city had made a bad deal initially with Ripken. But Bennett was adamant in denying there were any missteps by the city in negotiating the financial arrangement with Ripken baseball over the stadium.

People in Harford County, MD were a bit surprised to hear about mayor Bennett's trip to Augusta to pitch the virtues of the city's financial arrangements with Ripken Baseball and seemingly to encourage Augusta leaders to enter a similar relationship with the company to build a new stadium here in Augusta, and seemingly having no regrets of the initial deal inked with Ripken. . 

Patrick McGrady, a candidate for Aberdeen mayor who is challenging Mike Bennett, questions the ethics of the trip. Ripken Baseball officials admit they paid for Mr. Bennett's plane ticket to Augusta. Mr McGrady wonders if it  is perhaps a conflict of interest for the sitting mayor to essentially act as a lobbyist for Ripken Baseball, a company with which the city has a financial relationship. Mr. McGrady said via Facebook of the trip, "I do believe it is unethical behavior, and I hope it will be investigated." 

The Baltimore Sun also found mayor Bennett's trip to Augusta to give a sales pitch for Ripken Baseball to be interesting as well. They even did a follow-up article in response to what mayor Bennett said about their previous article being untrue during his appearance in Augusta. You can read their follow-up article here: Aberdeen mayor helps Ripken Baseball make pitch for new Georgia stadium.

So just who is right here? Was mayor Mike Bennett just having a bout of amnesia on Oct 3rd in Augusta, GA? So just who was trying to spread "misinformation" in Augusta about the baseball stadium? 

The truth about what actually happened in Aberdeen has profound ramifications for Augusta, where the city is contemplating developing a financial relationship with Ripken Baseball to build a new stadium here. For the more than  five years that the stadium proposal has been batted about, Ripken Baseball officials have been conspicuously coy about exactly how much they will pitch in financially for the costs. They neglected to give any more details at the October 3rd Augusta PR event  to  clarify what their role and financial stake might be and how much they expect from the city for a new stadium..

The main pitch for building a new stadium in Augusta has consistently been that it would be a financial boon to the city, that it would spur economic and real estate development in the city and be an economic boost to downtown. Initially, claims were made that the stadium would spur a mixed-use condo/retail/hotel development adjacent to the stadium, boosting the city's tax digest. Ripken Baseball officials have even pointed to the Aberdeen model as a "success story" that Augusta could emulate. Obviously the stadium has not been the economic boon nor cash cow that the city of Aberdeen was hoping it would be. 

Augusta leaders should thus proceed with extreme caution in forging any financial relationship with Ripken Baseball over building a new stadium. In fact the financial situation Aberdeen finds itself in regarding their stadium is not an anomaly. In fact, it seems to be the norm, and we will have more on that in future updates. 

Augusta leaders are cautioned to take the overly enthusiastic hype of stadium proponents with a giant grain of salt and to look at the real evidence, the actual track records, the real numbers, and not just buy into the often exaggerated predictions of a big economic pay-off that in reality never seems to come.

You can be sure there will be more follow-ups to this story, and City Stink will keep you updated. We would like to also challenge members of the local Augusta media to update their stories from last week in light of this new information.

**Update Friday, October 14th, 2011**
It appears there has been more political fall-out for Aberdeen, MD mayor Mike Bennett from his trip to Augusta (paid for by Ripken Baseball) to lobby on their behalf to help sell a stadium proposal to Augusta leaders. Patrick McGrady, who is challenging Mr Bennett for the mayor's job, has filed an official complaint with the city of Aberdeen Ethics Commission regarding the trip. You can read more about this here: Mayor and Challenger Disagree Over Augusta Trip

Here is a copy of Patrick McGrady's ethics complaint filed with Aberdeen Ethics Commission: Ethics Complaint Filed Over Bennett's Trip To Augusta on behalf of Ripken

**More reaction from media sources in the Aberdeen, MD area regarding the political Fall-out from Mayor Mike Bennett's trip to Augusta, GA: The Dagger Blog

**Update Nov 2nd, 2011** The Aberdeen, MD Ethics Commission finds mayor Michael Bennett in violation of the city's ethics ordinance: Mayor Bennett hit with ethics violation and Ethics panel "admonishes" Bennett
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Bread and Circuses

The following post was contributed by Taylor Bryant:

To effectively control a large group of people is not easy. People are generally disorganized, uneducated, disengaged from independent logic, and rely heavily on emotion to make decisions that affect their lives. To lead such a group, the leading establishment should exploit and capitalize on the interests and sometimes even the weaknesses of those they wish to control. This unethical manipulation should not be confused with the purity of leadership, as leadership is a half art, half skill that is a positive when used correctly.

Guess which methods are being used to steer Richmond County? It certainly isn't leadership.

The people of Augusta have fallen victim to the "Herd" mentality, and have split themselves, to the great advantage of those that govern this area. We have been lured and misled by those we have placed on high pedestals through elections and appointments. Why should such a town as ours, rich in resources, natural beauty, and great people, be forced into a perpetual tug of war with the likes of our peers or neighbors? Why should we be soothed by promises of sold out ball games and conventions, opulent botanical gardens, state of the art science centers, and even drag strips? Why do we concern ourselves with luring the once a year tourist, instead of trying to keep our neighbors from moving to adjacent counties and states?

This is not a new tactic. In 100 AD, Roman poet Juvenal wrote Satire X, chastising the use of cheap food and entertainment to appease and distract the masses, and rise to power. This would be known as "panem et circenses" or "bread and circuses."  The key to Roman power was to keep the "polis" intact by keeping the people instantly gratified therefore not focused on Government. It is harder to complain with a full belly and state of the art entertainment facilities.

History is Juvenal's redeemer. The Roman "Polis" was terminally flawed, and has failed.

So Augustans will continue to be apathetic to the bigger picture. Content with dollar draft beer, buffalo wings, and their stadiums. They will root for the destruction of one another through ordinances, laws, and zonings. I,  for one, have no appetite for bread, and would rather watch the circus that resides in the Marble Palace.

Taylor Bryant

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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Historical Revisionism in Downtown Augusta?

Oct. 9, 2011
By The Outsider

The Augusta Chronicle had a very interesting read in Sunday's online edition by  Carole Hawkins titled: Downtown Augusta seeks tipping point. It seems like we have  heard this many times before. That downtown Augusta, with all its potential, just needs that spark to get going. It needs that "tipping point." What may surprise people is that despite all of the rosy rhetoric over the last several years about how downtown is on the upswing,  the number of businesses in the downtown district has actually decreased by 27% over the last decade. So it seems things are going backwards. Downtown is taking one step forward and two steps back, or at the very best it is staying put in status quo.

So, just what is the magic bullet that is needed for downtown revitalization? A riverfront esplanade with an amphitheater? The Riverwalk is nice, although not well maintained, but since opening 25 years ago, it doesn't appear it was the tipping point for revitalizing downtown like it was hoped to do.  A condo tower with an upscale mall with an exterior painted a peachy pink color? Been there done that, didn't work either. A children's science museum in the failed mall portion of the pink condo building? Ditto. It closed too. A new history museum? Check. Still no tipping point, but it has a leaky roof.

Well how about a hotel with a convention center? Got that covered. Still no tipping point yet.. maybe the convention center just needed to be bigger. Parking deck? A new one just opened. But the one that opened in the late 1970s didn't exactly attract cars or revitalization, and neither did the one at the hotel-convention center that this new one replaced. Maybe this one will be different and  the new gigantic 40,000 sqft TEE center (eyes rolling) will be the magic bullet.. the tipping point... the catalyst! Well we will have to wait and see but it doesn't look promising with not one convention booked in its opening year and in 2013 only one convention has been booked, and it has been to town before and used the smaller facility.

 Well what about a fancy tourist attraction to capitalize on Augusta's connection to professional golf? A Georgia Golf Hall of Fame and botanical gardens, yeah, that's the ticket! Well the state of Georgia and Augusta invested over $18 million of your tax dollars in that fantastic idea. Tipping point? More like weed patch. Yep, all that money and years later and all the city has to show for it is an expensive brick wall and a "Garden of Weedin'."

 So what's next on the horizon? What's the next tipping point for downtown? Well mayor Deke just hates seeing that monument to failure formerly known as the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame just sitting there growing weeds producing no tax revenue. So he wants to build a city financed "multi-use" baseball park on the site. Yeah, that's the ticket, another taxpayer financed boondoggle. But hey, did anyone tell mayor Deke that a city owned ballpark won't generate any property taxes on that site either? Uh oh.

Some will argue that there WAS a tipping point downtown, and it happened when Main Street Augusta was essentially shut-down and The Downtown Development Authority took over as the primary guiding force and trustee of tax dollars for downtown revitalization. Some people say that was a very bad thing, and was a tipping point in the wrong direction. But it looks like some folks are trying to white-wash that history. In the Chronicle article. It is said that Main Street Augusta, the group responsible for First Friday, just "fizzled" out. Brad Owens, who was a downtown bar owner and very active in various downtown groups, says that is flat out incorrect.

The most interesting part of The Chronicle article came underneath in the comments section. Brad Owens posted a very informative comment (which surprisingly is still up on The Chronicle website). Brad gives us a great timeline of what actually happened regarding Main Street Augusta and The Downtown Alliance and how the DDA seized control. I have pasted his comment below:

OK, where do I begin?
First, this is a 100% fact; "The number of downtown businesses dropped 27 percent over the past decade..."
Numbers don't lie and the DDA can try to spin it any way they choose, but a net loss is a net loss. Period.
Second, Augusta's Main Street program did not "fizzle" it was destroyed by the DDA itself. I challenge this statement for being non-factual, "Its board disbanded, and programs such as Saturday Market and First Friday were picked up by the Downtown Development Authority, according to Woodard..."
That is a misleading statement at best, 100% fabrication at worst.
Hal Hood was forced to resign and the vote by the Main Street Board to dissolve was not taken in accordance with the by-laws. The DDA wanted to keep the funding that was sent to Main Street thorugh the DDA by the county (please note the DDA didn't see a reduction in it's stipend it gets from the RC tax payer after MSA "disbanded").
Also, the only reason the DDA even has a budget is because of Main Street. After the city and county became one, Randy Oliver said the Main Street program could not receive direct funding form the city, so they merged the DDA and Main Street programs to have an "Executive Directors" position.
The money Main Street was getting was supposed to just pass through the DDA not be controlled by them.
Main Street was a business assoc of sorts for downtown, and have non-profit status. The DDA got to keep the non-profit status even after they got rid of Main Street.
It was a dirty deal form the begining, and just after they got rid of Main Street, the Downtown Augusta Alliance (DA2) showed up on the scene.
Also, the Enterprise Fund used to get the Sat Market off the ground was coordianted by several folks (me included) with then commissioner Tommy Boyles, Janie Peel was in the middle of it too.
First Friday was dumped by the DDA and the GAAC picked it up after a HUGE fight. The Chairman of the DDA along with Maggie decided, without a vote, to defund the event.
I am sick and tired of the story not being told right and folks taking credit for the hard work of others.
Hal Hood worked hard to get it right, he was sabotaged by certain DDA members and Mian Street folks in cahoots with those DDA folks.
I am sure this will probably get removed, because no one wants to hear the truth and the newspaper folks are too lazy to get at the truth.
I am tired of all the spin, downtown is not booming, it is not what it could be and certain folks have made sure that it stays down and the ball stays in their court.
As you can see, I have FOUGHT to keep the funds going to these events while certain folks wanted it sent to their own pet projects.
Facts are stubborn things.
The problem is that people seem to have a short memory when it comes to all of the big taxpayer funded boondoggles that were intended to be the "tipping points" for downtown. When one looks deeper at the white elephants enumerated above, the name Augusta Tomorrow usually comes up. Despite their less than glowing track record, city leaders still seem  look to Augusta Tomorrow for more great ideas. Their ideas, tend to always focus on heavy taxpayer spending on big ticket status projects like the failures from years past. The master plan for downtown was commissioned by Augusta Tomorrow. They have somehow managed to appoint themselves as the master planners for downtown. Who is Augusta Tomorrow? They are a Who's Who? of civic business and government big wigs. You don't see a lot small business people in the ranks of Augusta Tomorrow , who would probably be the ones with the best insight on how to revitalize downtown (The membership fee alone is $6,000 for an individual). Instead you have the usual suspects: bankers, utilities officials, GHSU officials, a hodge podge of high society club types, government officials, and even the city administrator, Fred Russell. Also you will see a lot of Augusta Tomorrow in the ranks of the DDA. So could the DDA be a government funded proxy for Augusta Tomorrow?

Could it also  be that the vision that Augusta Tomorrow has for downtown is a bit outdated and isn't inline with the vision of those small business people who have actually been the primary investors into downtown over the last 15 years?  And should taxpayers be worried that when city leaders are seeking yet another "tipping point" for downtown, that really that is code for "lets build a publicly financed ballpark downtown!"

Will the real problems and past failures of downtown continue to get ignored in search of the "Next Big Thing?" City Stink will have more coming on the proposed ballpark and will cut through the spin and propaganda and give you the real facts on the true economic impact a minor league ballpark.

Until then, here is the second part in The Chronicle's series in the struggle to revitalize downtown Augusta: Empty Buildings Downtown Remain Impediment to Growth.

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Urban Redevelopment or Land Grab?

Oct. 6, 2011
Augusta, GA
By The Outsider

If not for the keen eyes of a couple of concerned citizens, the proposed overlay districts for the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem neighborhoods may have been scuttled through at last Monday's Augusta Planning Commission meeting with no discussion and without most of the affected property owners even knowing about them. It seems that Planning and Zoning failed to mail out the required notices to the affected 136 property owners.

The overlay districts could have major ramifications on existing property owners in the neighborhood by possibly imposing architectural and  design guidelines enforced by a review board. This is similar to what property owners in designated historic districts, like Olde Town and Summerville have to deal with. Many people would argue that this kind of added layer of bureaucracy may place an unnecessary burden on existing residents of Laney-Walker, because these rules would be retro-active (meaning existing property owners would not be grandfathered in).

These residents tend to be fall into lower income brackets and may not have the financial resources to be able to adhere to the types of design and architectural rules that may be arbitrarily be placed on them without their consent. What if a longtime property owner wants to install a vinyl fence or change their shutters, or paint their house? Well, if the overlay districts are imposed, they may have to go before an architectural and design review board for approval of even the most benign renovations or changes to their property (just ask people in Olde Town!).

Mike Sheil, a property owner in Olde Town, who has fought many of his own battles against the inconsistently and arbitrarily applied historic preservation guidelines in Olde Town,  along with long time Laney-Walker resident Dee Mathis (who is one of the 136 affected property owners for the overlay district), showed up at Monday's meeting looking for answers and  to ask why affected property owners were not properly notified about the meeting. Because of the action of these two concerned citizens, a hearing on the overlay districts has been rescheduled for November 7th, and the following letter has been mailed to the affected property owners notifying them.

The following document, Section 25 of Special District Classifications, explains the overlay districts:
It appears that 10% of property owners can impose the overlay district.  So some people are wondering if this much hyped urban redevelopment program (funded mostly from the $37.5 million hotel-motel tax that was imposed to help pass the TEE Center) is really a land grab that will ultimately force longtime residents out. Below is a map of the 13 proposed overlay districts for Laney-Walker:

*** City Stink would like to thank Mike Sheil and Dee Mathis for contributing to this article ***

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