Sunday, November 13, 2011

Lori Davis: What Does the Opportunity Zone Really Mean for Harrisburg?

By Lori Davis, chief Harrisburg correspondent for

Yes, I am, "That Harrisburg Lady," the name that Brad Means of WJBF gave me when I was running for Mayor of Augusta last year. Somehow I don't think this was a term of endearment and that's OK. No hard feelings. I'll wear it with pride.

The Augusta media sure has had no problem showing their bias. I think a lot of people were unhappy with me for running against the Beloved Mayor Deke Copenhaver. Well, someone needed to bring the true issues of this city to the forefront. I tried, but the local media would not engage in it. On the other hand, I know a lot of people who were very proud that I gave them a voice. The kind of people who truly matter in Augusta but who are often ignored: like the decent, hardworking people of Harrisburg. By the way, I am the President of the Harrisburg West-end Neighborhood Association, so you see I am a little more than just,"That Harrisburg Lady."

In recent months, I have uncovered the fact that the Harrisburg neighborhood has been designated an Opportunity Zone by the State of Georgia Department of Community Affairs. This state designation on the surface looks all fine and good, but when you dig into the details of how all of this happened without any involvement from the leaders of Harrisburg it becomes a whole other matter. How did this happen without us knowing about it? Very carefully. Is it good? is it bad? We don't know. We do know that the process was carefully hidden. It seems that in March of 2010 the Augusta Commission voted to declare Harrisburg an Enterprise Zone. Our District 1 Commissioner Matt Aitken put it on the agenda and George Patty and Fred Russell rammed it through.

Dist 1 Commissioner Matt Aitken by "The Shadow"
Matt Aitken didn't even know what it was all about, and has yet to answer any of my questions regarding it, claiming that he would have to get someone who knows more about it to explain it. Jeez!!!!! Just like what occured with the proposed Overlay Zoning District for the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem neighborhoods, this all happened without any public notice or hearing. This designation actually encourages big business to come into the area via tax breaks. This came as a surprise to me because Harrisburg leaders have been engaging in a five year battle to take back this crime ridden neighborhood and have been quite vocal about how we have wanted to do it. So why were we left out of the process?

We wanted our neighborhood to be restored to it's former greatness as an Historic Mill Village, and bring in Urban Pioneers to help reclaim one of the best downtown Augusta neighborhoods. You can't tell me that physicians who drive through here everyday don't wish that they could live this close to their work? All of this caused me to dig deeper into what was really happening with the area. I started looking at just how we had gotten the Opportunity Zone designation from the State. I asked for documents from the Department of Community Affairs which they quickly provided.

As I studied the documents I zeroed in on one interesting sentence. Mr. Patty of Planning and Zoning had written that the statistics recorded in the application had been derived from a,"Privately Funded Study." Another intersting thing for sure. Who provided the money for a study of Harrisburg, and why? Why were we not privy that this study was going on, and it's all important results? I decided to meet with Mr. Patty whom I have always said that I respected more than anyone else in Augusta Government. We might need to start calling him David Fry... Mr. Patty admitted to me that there was no study and no funding and that he did all of this on his own and that no one put him up to it. He just wanted to help Harrisburg. Oh really?? Let's go back a few years to understand where we are today in Harrisburg, and why this new information becomes so important.

George Patty, Dir. Planning & Zoning
Back around 2005-06 several of us in Harrisburg got together to begin the plans to take back this neighborhood from the drug dealers, the addicts, prostitutes and pimps. Shouldn't be that hard with good leadership and the law on our side. Boy were we wrong. We began to make all of the appropriate contacts, set up all of the appropriate meetings and make it known that we were true leaders and could turn around a sinking ship. All we needed was a little cooperation from law enfocement. Up until now, no real movement had taken place in Harrisburg.

I credit Butch Palmer with bringing us all together. Butch was born and raised in Harrisburg and has watched her decline over the years with no way to stop it. We began writing letters to landlords asking for their help with the tenants they were putting into their properties; The types that were drug dealers and hell raisers. We even protested one landlord in particular and took him to court over the drug dealing of his tenants. We got no response. We began making numerous calls to RCSO, set up our own neighborhood watch and patrol and began the hard work to rid this area of the troublemakers. We ultimately stumbled across an ordinance called," The Chronic Nuisance Property Ordiance," that was being used effectively all over the United States and even raised the money to bring a nationally known expert of this ordinance to Augusta to have a two day meeting with city leaders to explain how great this ordinance has worked around the country.

Butch Palmer: Harrisburg neighborhood leader and civic activist
We really thought we were getting somewhere except that the push back from a well known and well connected slumlord stopped us in our tracks. You see, a CNPO holds landlords accountable for the behavior of their tenants after so many calls to the authorities. The ordinance was never meant to criminalize the landlord in any way but to solicit his/her help in problem solving. The city was even gracious enough to set up a CNPO committee to draw up the ordinance.

For once it looked like we were getting somewhere. Mr. Patty served along side me on this committee while he continued to work on his application for Opportunty Zone designation for Harrisburg. The key point here is that an OZ cannot be awarded unless the area has certain horrible and provable statistics such as high crime, blight, and unemployment. While we were working to change these dynamics, a behind the scenes plan was obviously being executed by Mr. Patty and his cohorts. Harrisburg could not look good to get this OZ designation. The CNPO was further derailed by a city attorney who drew up the ordinace and then declared it federally unconstitutional. That was the end of the committee and the end of all of our hard work to draft a Chronic Nuisance Property Ordinance.

Commissioner Joe Bowles even appeared to be working hard on our behalf. What a ruse!! I remember my meeting with Sheriff Strength prior to bringing the CNPO consultant to Augusta. He said that he would support this ordinance 100%. If this had been the truth, we would have this ordniance today. It was all a smokescreen. My question was,"Why?" Who was behind the destruction of Harrisburg? During all of this, Butch Palmer ran for District One Commissioner and was defeated by Matt Aitken,  a Cabal backed and funded candidate.

We kept working in Harrisburg and kept getting a push back. We were not getting the help we thought we deserved out of all of our effort. To this day, Matt Aitken has not done one thing to help Harrisburg. It was beginning to become evident that someone did not want Harrisburg to prosper. Crime reports were worse and worse each month even with our dogged determination, letters to the editor and continued calls to code enforcement, the Marshall's Department and the media for coverage. Because of this, I decided to run for Mayor to hopefully expose what was going on behind the scenes in Augusta's government that was holding neighborhoods like Harrisburg back.

 I decided to run a clean campaign and did not alert the media when I found out that a former employee of Deke's family lived in Harrisburg next to one of the worst drug houses in our neighborhood. I chose to alert Deke for help after the lady came to me and explained how she had taken care of Deke's dying father. I got no response from Deke and still have not to this very day. The media never even wanted to discuss the issue of crime in the county even though this was a huge part of my campaign and a huge issue for the city and county with one of the highest crime rates in decades. It was conveniently ignored. Deke won. So after a five year battle, what is the state of Harrisburg today?

Typical blighted property found in Harrisburg (one of the better ones)
Two nights ago a person was shot in the chest in front of my house on Crawford Ave. Property is being silently bought up in certain areas of the neighboirhood by numerous LLC's connected with a major member of The Cabal as they hide behind philanthropic projects, all the while ignoring the major issue called,"Crime." The neighborhood over the past three years has had extensive studies performed by the Georgia Conservancy, Historic Augusta, and some other group that represented,"Lifelong Communities."

Crime is still not being addressed at least not to the level that it should be. Ten year old drug houses still abound, while prostitutes are being picked up in broad daylight. Harrisburg has been designated as an Opportunity Zone with a bogus study, no public hearing as required by law, and property values have plummeted even more. The Kroc Center has been completed, however, Harrisburg does not have a sitting member on the BOD of the Kroc Center, nor is there any community outreach as promised. I guess all of this is going according to someone's master plan. Nothing else makes sense. We believe that Harrisburg is being allowed to decline and at some point a land grab will be the reality when no one is looking. I can assure you,"That Harrisburg Lady" will not let this happen.

Lori Davis,
President of the Harrisburg West-end Neighborhood Association
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