Thursday, December 20, 2012

New Stadium Did Not "Slip Away" From Augusta

Thursday, December 20, 2012
Augusta, GA
By The Outsider

Project Jackson. It sounds like a top secret military program, and yesterday some of its details were declassified in a public presentation in North Augusta, SC. It turns out that all of the rumors flying around last week were true: there indeed is a plan to move The Augusta Greenjackets across the river  --- and  a proposed new stadium will be a centerpiece of Project Jackson.

The response to this news ranged from enthusiasm, confusion, and hand wringing -- depending  on what side of the Savannah river you are on. A riverfront ballpark has been debated for more than six years, but up until now, the discussion has always centered on a location along the downtown riverfront on the Georgia side of the river. Yesterday's presentation revealed the most specific proposal to date for a new stadium for the Greenjackets. Here is what we now know:

The Details

Ripken Baseball will be selling the team. The new owners will be an Investment Group  known as Agon Sports and Entertainment. One of the principals of this new group is none other than Jeff Eiseman, the past President of The Augusta Greenjackets under the Ripken group.

Project Jackson will be more than just a ballpark. It includes over $110 million in additional private developments that include a luxury hotel, apartments, town homes, restaurants, retail and office space.

The public sector is expected to chip in 30% of the cost of the project, totaling around $43 million. This would include the cost of the stadium, a conference center, and a riverfront park.

Despite the move to South Carolina, the new team owners expect the name to remain The Augusta Greenjackets.

This is just a proposal. There is no guarantee the stadium will be built. Depending on what funding mechanisms are used, voters could reject the stadium in a public  referendum. Also, some nearby residents of the affluent neighborhoods of Hammonds Ferry and The River Club have expressed concerns about noise, congestion and light pollution from a stadium. So, this is not a done deal by any means.

A Collective Whine

As soon as the details of Project Jackson emerged yesterday in North Augusta, you could practically hear a collective whine from across the river. An article on the stadium proposal appeared yesterday on the Augusta Chronicle website and  received over 100 comments by the end of the day.  Generally, people who were proponents of a new stadium on the downtown Augusta riverfront viewed the news as a major defeat and wanted to point the finger of blame. To paraphrase some of the comments from those wringing their hands over the announcement : "Augusta blew it,"  " Augusta just lost a great opportunity", "This idea was just too big and progressive for the people of Augusta" and "would the last person leaving Augusta turn the light off?" 

Some people wanted to blame Augusta commissioners for supposedly "letting this great opportunity slip away."  That blame is misplaced. For more than six years, Augusta commissioners have asked for a specific proposal from the Ripken Baseball group and the mayor. Those specifics never came. Instead, all Augustans got were vague sales pitches of  "Multi-use facility" and "public/private partnership". The Ripken group was intentionally coy about how much of their own money they were even willing to invest in the project. In fact, after the dozens of meetings Mayor Deke Copenhaver and City Administrator Fred Russell held with Ripken Baseball officials, not once did they produce a concrete proposal like the one that was revealed yesterday in North Augusta. Not once were actual costs presented to the public and Augusta commissioners. All we got was a six year long sales pitch for a product we never even got to see.

Show Me The Money!

It was obvious that the Ripken group had their eye on the former Golf and Gardens property  almost as soon as they purchased the team -- perhaps even before. When the state of Georgia announced that the downtown golf themed attraction -- that never even fully materialized -- would be closing, the sales pitch for a baseball stadium at the site began almost immediately. But instead of making an offer on the property when it was available, the Ripken Group stalled and teased the public with pretty conceptual water colore renderings. They created a "Bring Baseball Downtown" website that was supposed to look like a public grass-roots effort. They talked about possible condos, and all sorts of goodies, but with no specifics and  more importantly, no actual dollar figures. The trite term "public/private partnership" was continually batted around, but with no specifics of how much the private sector would invest into the project versus the public sector.  And after the recent debacle of the "public/private partnership" between the city of Augusta and Augusta Riverfront LLC over the TEE center and numerous other failed downtown boondoggles over the years, that term naturally sounded  off alarm bells in the minds of taxpayers from Washington Rd to Willis-Foreman Road.

Several years ago Mayor Copenhaver  asked commissioners to commit to acquiring the Golf and Gardens property from the state of Georgia for potential use as a site for a new baseball stadium. This would have cost the city $millions more for a property that it had already sunk $6 million of SPLOST money into for the failed golf and gardens attraction. Commissioners were naturally hesitant, especially when Ripken Baseball was still unwilling to give them more specifics. So time went by .. and the Ripken Group never made an effort to acquire the Golf and Gardens property on their own, and they still never brought a specific proposal forward to the commission. Instead they engaged in back room meetings with the mayor and city administrator and went on a prolonged six year tease with the public. We kept hearing reports over the years that a "big announcement" was imminent over the ballpark.. but nothing ever materialized. Bottom line is, Ripken Baseball and the mayor had six years to make a presentation to the public like what was done yesterday in North Augusta, and they never did.

Augusta is the Big Winner

Despite all of the hand wringing from some, the city of Augusta stands to be the big winner if Project Jackson   happens. The metro area will still have a minor league ball team, and that team will still be called the Augusta Greenjackets. This team will have a new state of the art facility much closer to downtown Augusta than the current one at Lake Olmstead. But the best part is that  Augusta taxpayers will not be on the hook paying for any of it.

And the private aspect of Project Jackson -- the hotel, the apartments, the town homes, restaurants and retail and office space -- is what is expected to  pay for the ballpark. That was a crucial missing element from proposals floated for the Augusta riverfront. Initially, six years ago, we did hear about the possibility of a mixed-use development, but talk was always vague and never as specific as what is being proposed in North Augusta. As the years went on the proposal for the Augusta riverfront started to be called a "multi-use facility", which is a big difference. This basically means they were pitching a baseball stadium that could be used for other events like weddings and concerts. The talk about a mixed-use development, including upscale condos and restaurants, seemed to have completely disappeared from the discussion and the sales pitch from the Ripken Group.

And it is not like the Golf and Gardens property on the Georgia side of the river will sit fallow. It is slated to become the site for an exciting expansion of the new merged University. This will include student housing, research and teaching facilities and even possibly a performing arts center. So downtown Augusta stands to benefit from two big projects: a ballpark and town center complex right across the 13th street bridge and a new university campus in the heart of downtown. If commissioners had of committed the city to acquiring the golf and gardens property for a ballpark, downtown Augusta would have ended up with far less... likely only a taxpayer subsidized stadium that would sit vacant most of the year. In this case, Augusta gets to have its cake and eat it too.

Even Mayor Copenhaver had to admit that this news might be good for Augusta:

And what if Augusta taxpayers had built the Ripken Group a new stadium to keep them in town? Well, it appears, based on yesterday's announcement, that may not have even have made a difference. The Greenjackets are getting a new riverfront stadium, but yet the Ripken group is selling the team anyway. What guarantees did Augusta have that building a new stadium would have kept Ripken baseball and the Greenjackets in Augusta? None.

Perhaps former Augusta mayor Bob Young summed it up best in a comment he posted to Facebook earlier in the week when the details of Project Jackson started to emerge:
"Time to put down the Kool Aid and have a reality check. 
First, North Augusta is going to develop a project with a baseball stadium that requires about 4 times the public investment stadium supporters in Augusta were talking about. This tells me that the true cost of this project is finally seeing the light of day. Second, Ripkin is selling his team, even though he is getting a new stadium. What's with all of his talk about loyalty to Augusta? Folks, if the people of North Augusta want to go on the hook for this, more power to them. 
Augusta's challenge now is the stadium on the lake. It's bought and paid for. The city gets control back when Ripkin leaves (remember, the contract gave Ripkin control over all uses of the park, not just baseball.) New home for our local college teams, perhaps?"
Indeed. The challenge for the city of Augusta is what to do with Lake Olmstead stadium. The city owns the facility free and clear, and now with complete control of it, Augusta can receive all of the profits generated from events and concessions. Maybe it's time the city started marketing that facility. The other option is to lease it out to the new merged university for college sports. Either way, the city is in a much better position in regards to controlling its asset at Lake Olmstead and reaping the benefits from it.

But officials should not jump the gun, So far, Project Jackson is merely proposal, and North Augusta citizens could give it the same icy reception that Augusta did with talk of spending tax dollars on building a ballpark. Also, there may very well be a push back from residents in nearby  Hammonds Ferry . It's still very early in the game, but by all appearances it looks like North Augusta officials went about this the right way. They came up with a specific proposal first with actual cost figures and who would pay what... and now they are pitching that to the public. It's the complete opposite way Ripken Baseball and the mayor went about handling selling the downtown stadium proposal.

The challenge for North Augusta officials now is to make sure that the private sector keeps their end of the bargain. As we have reported in previous stories, when cities build new stadiums on the promise of adjacent private development, it often does not materialize or not to the extent as promised. If North Augusta is going to commit $43,000,000 towards Project Jackson, taxpayers will want to be confident that the private development will come and pay back the public's investment. That means North Augusta officials need to insist on clauses in their partnership agreement that stipulates a time frame for construction of the private portion of  Project Jackson, with financial penalties if the private sector breaks their promise. Luckily, North Augusta does not have the incompetent Fred Russell as their city administrator.. so we expect they will negotiate a much better deal for the taxpayers.

The end result of Project Jackson is that it may finally help unify both sides of the Savannah River. Hopefully it will also make Augusta leaders  look at how North Augusta handles planning and negotiating these big projects, and they will learn something. You could say that both sides of the river could view this as a home run.**

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Commissioners Nix BID and Bridge to No Where

Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Augusta, GA
By The Outsider

The Mayan calendar supposedly predicted that the world would end at the  close of 2012, but perhaps what they really meant was that Augusta's controversial downtown Business Improvement District and the frivolous TEE Center sky walk would  have no future. In a marathon meeting yesterday, the last of 2012, Augusta commissioners decided not to renew the BID and its companion CADI (Clean Augusta Downtown Initiative) and the proposed "Bridge to No Where" spanning Reynolds street connecting the new convention center and its parking deck failed to receive the needed 6 votes for approval.

Bye Bye BID

Perhaps receiving the most attention at yesterday's meeting was the proposed renewal of the BID. Up until the last minute, it was not even certain if the DDA had secured the needed 110 signatures from select downtown property owners to even bring the item before the commission for a vote. As of late last week, they were 20 short, and they received a major blow when the largest property owner in the district, William S Morris III and his related companies, came out against renewal. But late on Monday, the DDA miraculously pulled the necessary signatures seemingly out of thin air, getting 4 more than the minimum necessary. But that did not sway commissioners. Wayne Guilfoyle, Bill Lockett, Alvin Mason, Joe Jackson and Joe Bowles all voted against renewing the controversial program. Commissioners Matt Aitken, JR Hatney, Jerry Brigham , and Corey Johnson voted to keep it. Outgoing commissioner Matt Aitken made a motion to renew the program with new provisions, but it failed to receive 6 votes for approval.

Critics of the BID maintained that just because the DDA managed to  scrape up the bare minimum of needed signatures to bring it before the commission did not mean that it had the support of a majority of downtown business and property owners. Robin Schweitzer, a downtown business owner, spoke out against the BID at yesterday's meeting and pointed out that it did not cover all of the Central Business District and was purposefully gerrymandered to insure its passage in 2007. But even under the DDA's selectively hand drawn BID, they were barely able to get the  minimum number of signatures for renewal. Former commissioner Andy Cheek, who served on the commission when the BID was first enacted, also spoke out against renewing it in an afternoon public meeting. He said that the DDA had mismanaged the program from the very beginning and never delivered on their promises to provide enhanced security downtown.

Paul King, a prominent downtown property manager, showed up with a posse clad in bright yellow t-shirts emblazoned with "I'm 4 CADI." Observers noted that most of them were employees of the program and tenants and employees of Mr. King. He appealed to commissioners to save the program, admitting that some mistakes were made but gave no specifics how the program would be corrected if continued.  Commissioners questioned the logic of renewing a program with so many flaws and failed promises. Several commissioners questioned how 7 to 9 hourly wage sidewalk sweepers could cost downtown business owners in excess of $350,000 a year and said the entire program begged for an audit. We have attempted to gain access to the books of the BID and CADI for previous stories and have received nothing but stonewalling from the DDA and their attorneys.

Some political observers are questioning why  Paul King was the main spokesperson for renewing the BID at the commission meeting yesterday, instead of DDA director Margaret Woodard, and this lead to people asking who is really pulling the strings at the DDA. We will have more about Mr King  in an upcoming article.

The Bridge to No Where Goes No Where

An agenda item that was expected to gain easy approval yesterday was the proposed sky walk connecting the new convention center to the new parking deck across Reynolds Street; however, it also failed to receive the needed six votes for approval. Championed by Joe Bowles, who had placed it on the agenda, the sky walk was estimated to cost close to $1 million. Bowles said that money that was left over from construction of the deck would pay for it, but others questioned the need to spend that money on something that was not  necessary and instead proposed putting the money in the bank or spending it on something that was actually needed.

With a bit of theatrics, Bowles made an impassioned plea for approval of the skywalk, citing recent pedestrian deaths in Augusta. Bowles said he did not want "to have blood on his hands" if a pedestrian was struck and killed crossing Reynolds Street trying to access the convention center. Critics of the skywalk asked why not spend the money to improve the safety at intersections that actually do have a history of pedestrian fatalities like Washington and Peach Orchard roads. Reynolds Street is relatively safe for pedestrians. Also in a bit of irony, traffic engineers said that a flashing billboard proposed for the skywalk would actually make Reynolds Street less safe for motorists and pedestrians. Under the management agreement for the convention center, Augusta Riverfront LLC would have received all profits from advertising on the electronic billboard on the skywalk.

Striking out yet again on both items was Mayor Deke Copenhaver, who even went on TV endorsing passage of the skywalk and also supported renewing the BID. Lori Davis, however can chalk up two more political victories. She helped mobilize opposition to renewing the BID and also fought approval of the skywalk. Davis took to her government watchdog Facebook group yesterday and asked citizens to email all of the commissioners and urge them to vote "No" on both agenda items. Davis says she has a lot more planned for the coming year.***

Related Stories:

Coming Up Tomorrow: We discuss the ballpark and adjacent development proposed for the North Augusta riverfront known as Project Jackson.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Corporal Gripweed: Commission Should Pull the Plug on the BID/CADI

Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Augusta, GA
By Corporal Gripweed

"If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development"

Today,  December 18th, in the Commission chambers, there may be a vote to decide the future of the troubled BID/CADI program....or maybe not.

As of this writing, it is unclear if the Director of the DDA, Ms. Margaret Woodard, has the necessary signatures of downtown property owners to even bring the issue before the Commission... If not, the BID will die a  whimpering  death at the stroke of midnight on December 31st, as it should.

What began as a five year experiment with a Business Improvement District,  has turned into a failed program, that has been mismanaged from the very start, beginning with the way it was sold to downtown businesses and property owners.

Ostensibly it was promoted to be primarily a security force of off duty officers and trained security professionals to augment RCSO during large downtown events. The bonus would be that graffiti removal and cursory clean-up would be provided when needed as well.

This, however, would not be free. Property owners would have to pay another separate tax on top of those already paid to provide these extra services. But here's the kicker: each property owner got a vote for each property that they owned, so the largest property owners got the most votes and of course they were most likely to be able to afford the tax. Giving the "little guy" virtually no say in whether this extra program was needed, much less whether they could afford it. And small business owners who leased their space got no vote at all, but ended up having the new tax tacked on to their rent anyway.

 So, the petition was circulated among those who were in favor, and those who were on record as opposed were ignored and kept out of the process. In fact, the BID was gerrymandered in such a way to insure that property owners who were opposed where excluded altogether. Most businesses east of 6th street were excluded.  The BID does not cover all of downtown, but rather a a select portion that the DDA believed they could  convince a slight 51% of property owners to approve. You see.. if it did included all of the recognized Central Business District, it would have never come close to getting the needed signatures for approval.  

So... no surprise as to the result...The BID was passed --- to the tune of over $350,000 a year which the DDA exclusively controls. There have been no audits or accounting as to how this money has been spent. After 5 years, we are talking about at least $1,750,000!!
The DDA rewards its cronies at the expense of others

Fast forward to this year:

After the failure of the program to address clean-up after this years St. Patrick's Day Parade, some people in the community began to question  the program and in particular the leadership of Ms. Woodard.

It has become obvious  that this program has been mismanaged from the very beginning. The promises made to property owners concerning security-- the MAJOR selling point of the BID 5 years ago-- were never implemented.
At best, the  BID/CADI has become nothing more than a perfunctory garbage pickup service that even Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said "had been done (previously) as well by prisoners". Any graffiti removal was performed at businesses who liked the program (aka cronies of the DDA) and NOT performed at those who opposed it...even though they pay the tax as well, lending further credence to the cries of favoritism within the DDA.

DDA Director Margaret Woodard
It's no secret that this writer and City Stink  are not fans of Ms. Woodard and the DDA, but I would go further and ask that the Board of Directors of the DDA, which includes Paul King,  be called out concerning their obvious lack of fiduciary duty. They are responsible for handling hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer monies and have failed in that  duty.

 If Ms. Woodard is able to get the needed signatures to bring this before the Commission for a vote,  I sincerely hope enough Commissioners will understand that there is no need  to renew this unneeded and mismanaged program. If somehow she does manage to pull out of thin air the bare minimum of signatures needed at the last minute, commissioners should realize that this does not indicate support of the majority of business and property owners downtown. What instead it does represent is a rigged attempt to make it appear that way.

At this point, the reputation of the DDA is so tarnished, that  the next logical step is to replace Ms. Woodard with someone who has the confidence of downtown business owners and who can effectively do the job of actually promoting downtown development and economic retention. Woodard  has failed to to this. The other option is to completely defund the DDA bureaucracy to ensure that it receives no more support from county taxpayers. What value are south Augusta taxpayers getting from having their money diverted to bureaucracies like the DDA anyway? Certainly that money could be better spent elsewhere, right? 

One need only look at the beginning and the development of this program to understand why it turned out the way it has -- .its failure rests squarely upon the shoulders of the current Director of the DDA and its officers. It was sold on deception and is only serving to put an extra burden on small downtown business owners. Commissioners would be wise to pull the plug on this failure and completely reevaluate the role of the DDA altogether.***

Friday, December 14, 2012

Anointment of Corey Johnson Raises Questions

Friday, December 14, 2012
Augusta, GA
By The Outsider

It appears there is a push underway to anoint commissioner Corey Johnson the next Mayor Pro-tem and this has started to raise a lot of eyebrows. WRDW News 12 reported on Wednesday that Commissioner Joe Jackson intends to nominate Johnson for the post being vacated by Commissioner Joe Bowles at the first commission meeting after the New Year. Mayor Deke Copenhaver even was quoted as saying that he fully expects Johnson to be named the next Mayor Pro-tem.

But some are wondering what the motivation is  to anoint Johnson before the new commissioners have even taken  office. There will be four new faces on the commission after January 1st -- well actually 3 new faces if you consider that Marion Williams is a returning commissioner. Some political insiders are saying that Johnson's confidence indicates that this has all been prearranged behind closed doors. Many people were hoping that the new commission would do business differently.

 So why the push for Johnson as Mayor Pro-tem? Well considering the history for filling the post, commissioners like to alternate between black and white commissioners. The exiting mayor-pro tem, Joe Bowles, is white -- so it is assumed that the next Mayor pro-tem should be black -- and apparently the powers that be have already decided it should be Corey Johnson. This has many political observers speculating that this is a reward for Johnson switching his vote on the TEE Center management contract. As you may remember, commissioners debated for more than a month over the details of the TEE Center contract. Augusta Riverfront LLC was essentially holding commissioners hostage-- demanding they sign off on a lopsided contract that would have been very detrimental to city taxpayers. Fred Russell and the mayor continued to play a game of cat and mouse -- always waiting till the last minute to put the contract on the commission's agenda with no changes whatsoever, hoping to wear down the commission into signing off on it out of shear fatigue. But commissioners continued to balk at the tactics and there was even a push to ditch Augusta Riverfront LLC in favor of Global Spectrum -- the manmager of Augusta's James Brown Arena and Bell Auditorium. It seemed that finally commissioners had the upper hand and were on the cusp of getting major concessions from Augusta Riverfront LLC or they would go with an entirely new operator.

But something happened after the General Election on November 6th. The very next day, approval of the TEE Center management agreement was placed on the Nov 8th commission agenda. It looked as though they were back to their old tricks again. But even just an hour before the meeting commissioners were saying that they did not believe it would pass -- and Joe Bowles was even quoted just an hour before the meeting that he still favored the Global Spectrum option. But, oh how things change when they get in the commission chambers. This time, the contract did have amendments, but it was hardly the best deal the city could have gotten given their new position of strength. In fact, most commissioners had not even seen the amendments until right before voting on them, and the lawyers were even handwriting amendments  just seconds before the vote. Surely commissioners would not approve such an important document that they had once again been hurriedly prepared and placed on the agenda at the last minute -- that most of  them had not even had time to study? Surely they would not approve this contract when just an hour earlier, they were telling the media they would not? But they did. Yes,  it was an improvement over the previous deals floated, but hardly the best deal the commissioners could have gotten if only they had waited one more weak. It looked like the commission was in a rush to pass anything after the results of the election just two days earlier . And who was the deciding vote that passed the TEE Center contract with Augusta Riverfront LLC at the last minute? Yep, you guessed it -- Corey Johnson.

We had been hearing for weeks that an immense amount of pressure was being put on Johnson to change his vote in favor of the terms with Augusta Riverfront LLC, and when people began talking about using Global Spectrum, that pressure intensified. Johnson stood his ground for a couple of weeks but in the end, voted for the contract with Augusta Riverfront LLC.. that was only slightly better than the original.. just at the moment when the city had the upper hand in the negotiations.

Political insiders tell us that some of Augusta's biggest power brokers dangled some mighty big carrots in front of Johnson for him to switch his vote -- but the clincher was apparently promising to make him the city's next mayor. And now it looks like they are making good on that promise by prepping Johnson for the  job by anointing him the next mayor pro-tem, which is essentially an understudy for the mayor. The next mayoral election will be held in 2014. After the results in the sheriff's race, the downtown power brokers saw the writing on the wall, and realized that the next mayor was likely to be black -- and they needed to get busy now prepping someone for the job whom they could control -- and that someone appears to be Corey Johnson.

But what about Bill Lockett? He has been proven right on a multitude of issues -- including the TEE Center. Lockett has a command of the details on  the most complex issues and comes fully prepared to ask tough questions. Corey Johnson on the other hand has difficulty forming a complete sentence. And then there's the whole ego thing. When interviewed by WRDW about the anticipated mayor-pro-tem position.. Johnson exclaimed, "Because I'm great. I'm going to be honest with you because I'm great." Wow, what humility. If he does get the job, we have to wonder if he will require a gold plated throne. 

But what about Wayne Guilfoyle? He has emerged as a real leader on the commission and, like Lockett, does his homework before commission meetings. Guilfoyle had some tough questions for DDA director Margaret Woodard earlier this week regarding the renewal of the downtown business improvement district and companion CADI program. Guilfoyle wondered why downtown business owners were being taxed a third time for services that once were provided for free by jail inmates. Astute observation, Wayne! Guilfoyle, also held his ground on the TEE Center and he was one of the swing votes that halted action on the controversial Laney Walker Overlay. And isn't it about time an Asian-American held the mayor pro-tem position? I mean, if we are going to award the position on a rotating racial quota, isn't it about time for an Asian-American to get the nod? Plus it would give South Richmond County a level of prestige they have not had on the commission in quite some time. 

But the power-brokers have decided they want Corey.. maybe because they fear independent thinkers like Bill Lockett and Wayne Guilfoyle. They seem to have the next four years planned out and Johnson asd mayor-pro-tem fits nicely  into their plans.***
More to come

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Winners and Losers From The District 1 Runoff

Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Augusta, GA
By The Outsider

It has been a week since Bill Fennoy trounced incumbent Matt Aitken in the District 1 runoff on December 4.   This was a reversal of fortunes from three years ago when the same two candidates met in an early December runoff for this same seat with Matt Aitken taking it with 54% of the vote. Turnout was even lower this time -- at around 19% of all registered voters-- but Fennoy still managed to win by a margin close to 700 votes. Yes, it was a rout and a clear rebuke of Aitken's performance on the commission for the past three years. Some political pundits were predicting that Aitken might squeak out another win because of the lower than expected turnout, but an analysis of the vote shows that the precincts that had the lowest overall turnout were the ones Aitken needed most to secure reelection. Bottom line is -- there was not nearly as much enthusiasm for Aitken this time around and many of the people who voted for him in 2009 simply stayed home last Tuesday.

Despite the low turnout, this was perhaps the most widely watched of all of the commission races this year. Aitken's victory 3 years ago disrupted the 5-5 racial split on the commission that existed since the beginning of consolidation, giving white commissioners a 6 to 4 majority. Many leaders in Augusta's black community said that this resulted in Augusta's black majority being politically marginalized and allowed for legislation to be rammed through with little discussion or compromise. In essence -- whomever has a 6 member voting bloc has control of the commission, and many black members of the commission felt like they had been rendered irrelevant. Now that 5-5 balance has been restored, and depending on whom you ask, that either means more gridlock on the commission or a necessity to compromise.

So what should people expect from this new commission? Some political pundits say that gridlock just might be a good thing for the Augusta Commission if it halts bad deals like the TEE Center and Parking deck and a publicly financed baseball stadium which voters have indicated they overwhelmingly oppose. So we thought it would be interesting to examine who are the big winners and losers from the results of the District 1 race. We will dispense with the obvious -- the candidates themselves -- and take a look at who else won or lost last  night. Let's start off with the big losers:

The Losers 

Mayor Deke Copenhaver: The mayor staked a lot of his own political capital on the reelection of Matt Aitken. He openly endorsed him, appeared in slick mail outs and he even made robo calls to voters encouraging them to give Matt a second term. The clear rebuke of his candidate shows that the mayor may not be the hot commodity he once was. There was a time when having even a subtle nod from the "mandate mayor" was considered political gold -- and Deke seemed to have the Midas touch. But now it seems like the mayor's golden halo has become a little tarnished. From continuing to push the unpopular ballpark to being on the wrong side of the TEE Center debate to acquiescing on GRU, many people are starting to rethink the mayor's legacy altogether.

And what about that ballpark on which the mayor has staked most of his mayoral legacy? Well, after last Tuesday night, it's as good as dead -- at least in the form Deke has been pushing -- a taxpayer financed facility located downtown.  Dr Ricardo Azziz struck a major blow to Deke's ballpark fantasies when he took control of the Golf and Gardens property earlier this year, but many political insiders tell us that Deke had not given up and was eyeing the old Post Office building downtown across from the James Brown arena. But Deke needed Matt Aitken's vote for the ballpark proposal to have any future -- and Matt had proven to be a reliable supporter of  his plans. He even introduced a motion last year on the commission that would have committed the city to a public-private partnership  with Ripken Baseball for construction of a new stadium. Knowing what we know from the TEE Center debacle, the term "public-private partnership" is code for "The public pays all of the costs and the private sector gets all of the benefits." Now with Matt Aitken off the commission, the mayor's hopes in getting a new ballpark approved before he leaves office in two years are crushed-- like peanut shells in the stands after the end of a double-header.

Fred Russell: Augusta's city administrator has been skating on thin ice for years, but like a monster from a cheesy horror film, he always manages to come back from the dead. Efforts to fire Russell have failed in  the past, with votes typically falling along racial lines -- black commissioners voting to get rid of him and white commissioners voting to keep him. But with the new makeup of the commission, Russell's luck may have just ran out. Even commissioners who had voted to keep Russell in the past have said they have been very unhappy with his handling of the TEE Center and would likely support his firing if it were brought up again. The sticking point though has always been Russell's replacement and watch for a real fight over that if he is shown the exit, and it may happen a lot sooner than you think. So could this be a curtain call for Russell-Mania? Our Magic 8-Ball says "Most Definitely."

Queen Madge and the DDA: Another big loser after Matt Aitken's defeat is the Downtown Development Authority and its executive director Margaret Woodard. Aitken had been perhaps the biggest supporter of the DDA on the commission -- in fact,  he is a product of the DDA and even announced his 2009 candidacy in front of the ill-fated Broad Street clock -- the same clock that the DDA moved to the airport against the wishes of many downtown business owners.

 There have also been a lot of rumblings from these small business owners downtown about the performance of the DDA's CADI program, and many say that they were initially mislead by Margaret Woodard and the DDA about what services the BID (business improvement district) would provide when it was approved 5 years ago, saying that it was promoted as providing enhanced public safety downtown but has become little more than a very expensive litter removal program. Now, the BID is coming up for renewal and many business owners are lobbying against it. Ultimately, the commission will decide its fate -- and with Aitken gone, things could tilt in favor of the opponents of the BID and CADI program. But beyond that, many downtown business owners say the real problem is the DDA itself,  describing it as bureaucracy out of control that acts with complete disregard to everyone except themselves and their cronies. Even the BID board of directors is packed with DDA cronies and the company that administers the CADI  program is  headed by none other than cronies of the DDA.

Retail business owners say that since the DDA has usurped more power from downtown merchants associations, that business has sharply declined and Margaret Woodard often plays favorites, steering lucrative state grants and business leads to her cronies. We predict that there will be a push to significantly curtail the power of the DDA and its executive director, and  the new makeup of the commission makes that more likely. Also look for an effort to defund the DDA at the county level which would essentially eliminate the executive director's position. Queen Madge might finally be dethroned.

Mobility Transit: One of the big efforts over the past 3 years has been the privatizing of certain city amenities and services, with the most notable being the public bus system. The city contracted with an outfit named Mobility Transit and it has been a bumpy ride to say the least. There were the reports of unpaid bills and the cancellation of employee health benefits because of lack of payment by Mobility. People wondered how a company like Mobility Transit got the contract in the first place. Their track record in providing transit services in other locales seems to be non existent. Look for Mobility to get the ax in the coming year, and it's a good bet that the public bus service will go back to being an in-house operation. Also look for the new commission to put the brakes on efforts to privatize other city services and amenities like The Patch golf course.

Billy Morris & Paul Simon: Perhaps the biggest losers from last Tuesday's election were the men behind Augusta Riverfront LLC, the owner of the downtown Marriott hotel and soon-to-be managers of Augusta's new convention center (formerly known as the TEE Center). Morris and Simon have managed to get a lot from Augusta taxpayers over the years and Matt Aitken was only more than happy to give them more. When it came to managing the new parking deck and convention center, Matt Aitken was more than happy to sign away the city's rights to any profits and essentially hand over a blank check to Augusta Riverfront LLC that would allow them to loot the city's general fund. Even when other commissioners balked at the hideously bad   contracts, Matt Aitken just "wanted to move forward", which is essentially code for "Just give Billy and Paul whatever they want." Well, with Matt gone from the commission at the end of the year, the taxpayer gravy train that has been chugging down Reynolds street may finally be coming to a halt.

The Winners

Lori Davis: Initially a declared candidate for the District 1 seat, Lori Davis decided not to enter the race the week before qualifying. Some of her critics misconstrued this as her "giving up" out of frustration, but Davis had no intention of calling it quits. And if her critics thought she was going away, they were sadly mistaken. Instead, Davis contended, her efforts would be better used by fighting government waste and corruption on multiple fronts, and being consumed by a political campaign would have distracted from those efforts. However, Lori Davis made it clear that District 1 needed someone other than Matt Aitken, someone whom she supported 3 years ago. But things had changed and promises were broken. Davis has been fighting a six year battle to rid nuisance properties from Harrisburg and to make absentee landlords more accountable for their properties and the negative impact they have on the surrounding community.

When Matt Aitken courted Lori Davis' support in the 2009 run-off, he promised to support a Chronic Nuisance Property Ordinance (CNPO) and even said he would ask the state legislative delegation to introduce a bill in Atlanta to enable communities to draft effective CNPOs. Those promises were never kept, and once Aitken got on the commission, Davis says that phone calls and emails to Aitken were rarely returned. Instead, Aitken was focused on things like a riverfront ballpark, the TEE Center and further enabling the DDA. So this time around, Davis threw her support behind Bill Fennoy, even appearing in television ads for him. We believe that Fennoy's trouncing of Aitken last Tuesday was in no small part due to the endorsement from Davis. One lesson that should come out of this is: Do not underestimate Lori Davis. We suspect that this new commission will be more amenable to the drafting of a sound CNPO and we would not be surprised to see Lori Davis have a seat on one of the local boards that could make this happen.

Commissioner Bill Lockett: With the commission now returning to a 5-5 balance, it's safe to say that there will be a whole new dynamic at play after the new year, and with that, there will be the need for new leadership from both factions in order for anything to advance in the commission. We see two clear leaders emerging under this new paradigm, and one of them is Commissioner Bill Lockett. As one of the more senior members of the commission and one of the most educated, Lockett dives right into the details on most issues. Lockett come prepared to ask tough questions and never takes anything at face value and always wants to see it "in writing." Some political observers say that with Marion Williams coming back to the commission, Lockett will be overshadowed. We do not agree with that assessment. In fact, we predict that Lockett's presence will temper Williams to a great degree. Lockett will prepare him and other commissioners with relevant information before meetings so that they can ask pertinent questions. We suspect the other commissioners will defer to Lockett's experience and his attention to detail on complicated issues.

Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle: Though he endorsed Matt Aitken in the run-off, Guilfoyle now stands to become one of the  most powerful men on the commission. Though most political observers like to say the commission is now split 5-5 along racial lines, others point out that it's actually 5-4-1. You see, Wayne Guilfoyle is actually of mixed race -- half white and half Asian. Though Guilfoyle typically caucuses with the white members of the commission since being elected two years ago, he has routinely shown an independent streak, often being a swing vote. And the fact that his voting pattern tends to be unpredictable will make him perhaps the most powerful member of the commission after January 1st. Being of mixed race, Guilfoyle can refuse to play the white vs black dynamic and in the process he can become the main power broker on the commission. For anything to pass on the commission, it needs six votes, and now, no one faction has that majority. We suspect that Wayne Guilfoyle's phone will be ringing a lot this next year, and with Bowles gone from the commission, expect to see a lot more of Wayne Guilfole on the evening news. Also watch for Guilfoyle to bring more attention to issues of importance to South Augusta in the coming year.

South Augusta: With Commissioners Guilfoyle and Lockett gaining more prominence on the commission, look for South Augusta to be more in the spotlight. Both commissioners represent districts that encompass the southside. The new dynamic has shifted power away from the downtown power brokers and out towards South Augusta. Expect to see movement on reforming Augusta's tax code, how trash pick up is handled and billed to  South Augusta, and revitalization efforts for inner south Augusta neighborhoods like the Gordon Highway corridor and Deans Bridge Rd.

Small Downtown Business Owners: With South Augusta gaining more prominence politically after this election, it might seem counter intuitive to include downtown small business owners in the winners column. Quite the contrary! As mentioned earlier, one of the ramifications of last week's election is that the power of the Downtown Development Authority has been significantly weakened, and that puts small business owners in the downtown core in a stronger position than ever. Just yesterday, the DDA and its executive director Margaret Woodard were put in the hot seat over the renewal of the BID (Business Improvement District). Mike Walraven, a small business owner downtown, spoke out against renewal of the BID and its companion CADI program, calling it "another tax". Commissioners grilled Woodard on how the program was misrepresented to downtown property owners and the undemocratic way the Board of Directors for the BID was installed. Look for downtown business owners to have a greater role now in the future direction of the central business district, instead of it being monopolized by the DDA and their cronies.

Bus Riders: Augusta has long been plagued by a less than adequate public transit system, but it has not always been this bad. There was a time when there were actually bus stops on Broad Street in the heart of downtown. Now, the closest you can get is the awkwardly located bus transfer station west of 15th street. People who depend on the bus -- often the poor, disabled and elderly -- have long complained of  long waits, unpredictable schedules and a lack of routes to places people need to go. Downtown business owners say that since the busses were removed from downtown, retail has suffered and it has become harder for them to attract workers who rely on public transit. Bill Fennoy made improving public transit a central theme of his campaign, and we suspect there may now be the political will to actually make it happen. This may involve building new partnerships with the new merged university and downtown business owners to help pay for expanded bus service in the city's urban core -- where it is most needed. Also, look for efforts to improve service in South Augusta and out to business centers like The Augusta Mall and The Augusta Exchange. We expect one of the first things commissioners might do in January is take one of those "Magical Mystery Tours"  on a city bus to get a sense of how the transit system can be improved... but this time they ought to ride it like the average daily user does.. with delays and all. ***

Stay Tuned: More to Come

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Corporal Gripweed: District 1 Runoff Leaves Voters Little Choice

Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Augusta, GA
By Corporal Gripweed

  "Constantly choosing the lesser of  two evils is still choosing evil."
                                                                                        Jerry Garcia
It's down to two candidates in the undecided District 1 race for Richmond County Commission..On the one hand we have incumbent Matt Aitken, and on the other, challenger Bill Fennoy.

With about  a week to go before the decision is made, I do not envy the voters of District 1. How can it be that in one of the most important districts in the county, that includes downtown  and the manufacturing facilities downriver, that this is the best that can be done? Both men have proven themselves to be interested in public service.

Fennoy serving on the Coliseum Authority, and Aitken currently serving on the commission, but neither man has a track record of particular achievement to be touted as "praiseworthy" as it relates to public service.

As someone who tries to keep up politically ,while not allowing it to rule my daily life, I have two distinct memories of each man respectively. Fennoy was best known as the man who punched activist Woody Merry in an altercation after a Coliseum Authority meeting. And Aitken was  caught off-guard on camera by WRDW's Chris Thomas, concerning a budget vote, making it painfully obvious that he had no clue what he voted to approve. (see video below)

Fennoy? Who stated publicly that the seat belonged to a "black Obama supporter" or Aitken…who failed to show up at ANY Laney-Walker Overlay meetings…and only attended one of at least four debate forums leading up to the general election. 

A man who maybe, has trouble controlling his temper and doesn't think before he acts….Or a man who graduated from the "Deke Copenhaver" school of milquetoast politics and allows others to do the thinking for him.

Which leaves us with the question…Who will best represent the interests of District 1?

In my opinion….neither, but the reality is that one of these two men will represent District 1 for 4 years.

 One thing is certain. if re-elected Matt Aitken will continue to do as he has in the past... which is to say and do as  he's told by the power brokers pulling his strings. 

 Mr Fennoy may be the more pragmatic choice at this point, as he's never served on Commission and may be just the "roll of the dice" the city needs…because what District 1 HAS had the last few years has been more of a puppet than a leader and an advocate for his constituents.

 It's a shame that such an important district is left with such paltry choices….."the lesser of two evils" indeed.**

*Editor's note: Harrisburg neighborhood activist and former Dist 1 candidate Lori Davis has officially endorsed Bill Fennoy in the Dist. 1 run-off

Monday, November 12, 2012

Enslaved Forever on the TEE Plantation

Monday, November 12, 2012
Augusta, GA
By The Outsider

Now all Augustans lie prostrate to Massa Billy and Massa Paul, thanks to the 6-3 vote of the Augusta Commission to pass the TEE Center deal last Thursday, November 8, 2012. White, black, Mexican, Korean, Chinese or Indian, the entire City of Augusta is now enslaved to Billy Morris and Paul Simon or, if you believe Augusta radio talker Austin Rhodes at WGAC, the Morris children.

No one can really tell who the owners of the new TEE Center management company are because it didn’t even exist until last month and it was registered by an intermediary to keep the ownership hidden, something Augusta’s procurement policies seem to prohibit. It will just have to suffice that the person’s listed on various documents for the original Morris/Simon LLC suggest that the Morris family are the principal owners. Even the Augusta Chronicle, who has acted throughout the TEE escapades as a front for these shadowy LLC’s, has been forced to weakly acknowledge that there are ties with Morris Communications.

The place where they put the permanent shackles on the people was originally supposed to be Augusta’s wonderful new TEE Center, but the massas had confiscated the building before the last concrete set up. They weren’t content to just stick spurs in horses over there in their Hippodrome in Aiken County, now the children all across Richmond County find themselves bound to a plantation and they didn’t have to move to Morris’ Creek Plantation, Wade Plantation, Butterfield Plantation or Millhaven Plantation to do it.

When you are in Augusta, you don’t move to the plantation, the plantation comes to you. Worse of all, the legalese says you and your descendants are slaves to the Morris massa’s TEE House FOREVER!!!
Yes. You read that right.

Mayor Deke Copenhaver and Administrator Fred Russell cheered as Commissioner Corey Johnson, Commissioner Matt Aitken and four other commissioners voted for this:

“Term of this Agreement” shall mean the period of time commencing on the date of this Agreement and continuing in perpetuity for so long as the TEE Center is in existence and shall include the period of time following any casualty with respect to the TEE Center for so long as City has the right to rebuild the TEE Center.

Now reader, you are just about to read the last part of that and tell me it is a way out of the Tee Center for Augusta because it ends when the TEE no longer exists.  Well, it is like the old tale of Dem Bones – “Toe bone connected to the foot bone: Foot bone connected to the leg bone: Leg bone connected to the knee bone….." You just have to make the connections to get the whole body of facts.
Reading on:

During the Term of this Agreement (perpetuity), City shall, at its sole cost and expense, maintain the TEE Center to the Standard for so long as the TEE Center shall exist.

Getting a better picture now, reader? The “Standard” is whatever Billy and Paul’s interpretation of what their Marriott Hotel says it is and Augusta has to pay whatever it takes to meet their ‘Standard.’ That sounds expensive already, doesn’t it?

Now you Doubting Thomases who are left thinking that this pay-out to Morris and Simon isn’t FOREVER, get with the program. “The knee bone is connected to the thigh bone, and the thigh bone is connected to the hip bone.” And so it goes with the Tee Center. You follow the boneyard and find out it is the TEE Center. Now a Doubting Thomas would say “Well, if Augusta decides to contract with someone else or close down the Tee Center, we can stop paying them or stop paying costs on their behalf, right?”
This isn’t exactly true, according to the contract:

The parties acknowledge that Developer has an important interest in insuring that the TEE Center is maintained in accordance with the Standard, whether or not Developer serves as the Manager or Caterer. Accordingly, this Agreement, and particularly this section of this Agreement, may be enforced by Developer. (Developer is the Morris/Simon)

In other words the Morris/Simon massa still has the power over the taxpayer, even if their contract is lifted.

Are you getting a queasy feeling in your stomach, Hephzibah? So you on Warren Road think that the TEE plantation you are on will meet an emancipation proclamation that sets you and all your descendants free from PERPETUAL bondage? Dear readers might still not be convinced that the TEE Center is their massa FOREVER. It’s time to read some more:

During the Term of this Agreement (PERPETUITY, remember?), City shall, at its sole cost and expense, procure and keep in effect fire and extended coverage for the TEE Center and all personal property located thereon, including rent loss or business interruption …, in amounts at no time less than the total replacement cost therefor. Such policy referred to above shall name City and Developer as loss payee and additional insureds, as their interest may appear.

So, there you have it. Augusta has to pay for the TEE Plantation in PERPETUITY and pay to insure that it is replaced in PERPETUITY. If it is destroyed, the Morris/Simon hotels are almost certain to be destroyed too, so replacement would be driven more by the Morris/Simon decision on what to do with their hotel complex than anything Augusta decides.

How great is the claim on Augusta’s tax system to pay for the TEE Plantation? On the financing side, the project was built using general obligation sales tax bonds, as certifications by the Construction Manager, R.W. Allen attest. General obligation bonds are backed by the fullest ability of Augusta to tax people out of their homes and businesses out into the street. On the operations side of the TEE Plantation, hoteliers get looted for the first $250,000 (another $100,000 goes into capital spending), but then the rest of the TEE Center losses come out of the General Fund, which also is fed by the power to tax folks into poverty. When a contract like the TEE contract gets executed, that obligation comes before paying for essential city services, like fire and police protection.

Now that the whole skeleton of bones has been assembled, the full picture of the TEE Center deal is this – All of the people of Augusta-Richmond County, their children, and descendants are now under double general obligations to the extent of the value of all of their property to the Morris children and descendants in PERPETUITY.

Get used to the shackles and chains that Mayor Deke put you into.  Only death or getting out of Augusta will give relief.

Can you say that you’ve been TEE-totally subjugated?
It sure looks this way to an Outsider.***


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Special Report: Out of Line Asking for a Single Line?

TEE-Totally Fried Circuits
A $2.6 million Cover Up?
Thursday, November 8, 2012
Augusta, GA
By Lori Davis

In $15 Million Augusta CONference Center Pays$25,000 a Year to City  this writer brought up the issue of the enormous electrical power costs that were evident in an earlier Georgia Open Records Request in which the accounting for Augusta Conference Center lease payments was obtained. Those records suggested that the Conference Center Manager, Augusta Riverfront LLC (owner and operator of the Marriott hotels), was using estimates to separate power used by the Marriotts from that charged to Augusta’s Conference Center rather than precise separate metering.

That got me to thinking. If they are estimating for the Conference Center, where they are responsible for the power bill, are they going to estimate again for the TEE Center power? Will there be separate metering for the bill that the taxpayer has to pay out of the General Fund of Augusta-Richmond County?

In a Georgia Open Records Act Request submitted on October 31, 2012 an official inquiry was made to access the simple single line diagram that would answer my question. A single line diagram looks like this:

click image to enlarge

It doesn’t show locations, specifications, or details, it just shows how power enters a development or building and the uses to which it is directed. Imagine the shock when the response from Augusta’s Law Department was a refusal to provide an answer to my request based upon” considerations that disclosure “would compromise security.”

Why is Fred Russell’s and Deke Copenhaver’s Law Department engaged in this cover up? Russell flits about, dismissing public watchdogs’ efforts as being concerned over nickles and dimes, when he hides the truth about the legitimacy of a $5.2 million ($350,000 for 15 years) Tee Center Cost? Proposed Management company executive Paul S. Simon thinks that " this is a very expensive building to operate", while citing a $350,000 annual power bill as a reason, so a key player doesn't see this Fred's way.

Sources tell me that the way the TEE Center electricity was routed was such that the Tee Center, where Augusta pays the bill, is on the same incoming circuit as the Conference Center, where Augusta Riverfront LLC pays the bill.  They say that, in the aftermath of last Friday’s meeting between three Augusta Commissioners with Augusta’s contracted counsel and an Augusta Riverfront LLC attorney efforts are underway to accomplish separate metering.

The watchdogs want to see proof of developments on the issue. We want to see savings.

At just one-half the costs indicated by Mr. Simon, this is a $2.6 million question. It is good to see a team of Augusta Commissioners looking for answers that Fred Russell and the Law Department intend to hide.


Lori Davis GORA 10312012 Response