Friday, February 10, 2012

Is there Something to Hide in Hyde Park?

One of the abandoned homes in Hyde Park
Friday, Feb. 10, 2012
Augusta, GA

It's been an ongoing saga for decades, but it appears that within 5 years all 110 families living in the beleaguered Hyde Park neighborhood  will be calling someplace else home courtesy of the taxpayers. Back in October of last year, Augusta commissioners voted to spend  $2.3 million in redirected sales taxes for land acquisition in Hyde Park to make way for a retention pond to alleviate flooding and capture contaminated drainage run-off.

There's no question that there is contamination in and around Hyde Park, but not everyone agrees that it warrants relocating all of the residents and building an expensive retention pond. In fact, the EPD and EPA have so far not concluded that the contamination is to a level to warrant a complete evacuation. But the city wanted to settle the issue once and for all with a buyout of all the property owners. For decades there have been complaints of higher than normal rates of cancer and birth defects among people living in Hyde Park.  Because of this reputation, the property values  plummeted, trapping many of the elderly residents who had bought in long before there was ever knowledge of contamination. For what little they may have been able to get for their property would not have been enough for them to find a comparable home somewhere else. This is why Commissioner Corey Johnson made the relocation of Hyde Park residents a focal point of his 2010 reelection campaign.

But where would the residents go and how much would it cost to get them there? It appears we have an answer to the first part of that question. Chester Wheeler III, the director of the Augusta Housing and Community Development Department wants to put most of them in Laney-Walker. It could be a quick fix to fill the newly constructed homes that are part of the Heritage Pine development. You see, the homes the city has been building in Laney-Walker have not exactly been selling like hot cakes. Critics contend they are too expensive for that neighborhood and there is still an aversion for many people to buy into Laney-Walker, which has a reputation for crime. So it's a rather convenient solution to now fill those new houses with Hyde Park evacuees. Commissioner Corey Johnson tells us that Hyde Park residents will be afforded other options besides Laney-Walker. Residents with paid mortgages will be able to receive a lump sum payment worth the value of their Hyde Park property pending an evaluation from an independent appraiser. And housing vouchers can be used for the purchase or rental of housing elsewhere, including Magnolia Trace in Columbia County. But, If the voucher is too low, then Laney-Walker  may be their only option.

That could be great news for the many LLCs that have bought up property in the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem neighborhoods in anticipation of the redevelopment. In our research, we have found some interesting connections among land ownership in Laney-Walker and Hyde Park. We will have more on those findings in an upcoming article.

This could also be good news for Melaver-McIntosh, one of the principal partners in the Laney-Walker redevelopment effort, who's subsidiary, Melaver, Inc also owns Enterprise Mill and has had business relationships with Clay Boardman.

The Hyde Park relocation will  infuse  millions of more dollars in tax money into the Laney-Walker redevelopment and into the bank accounts of its developers and paid consultants. It also will help guarantee a nice return for the well-connected or clairvoyant real-estate speculators who knew just which properties to buy in Laney-Walker at rock bottom prices, who are some of the same speculators who bought property in Hyde Park for pennies on the dollar long after it was known that there was possible contamination  in anticipation of a government bail-out. And now they could cash in big... in both Hyde Park and Laney-Walker.

The TEE Center Connection 
The Laney-Walker redevelopment project would not have happened if not for the TEE Center. It was a compromise back in 2007 between then commissioners Don Grantham and Betty Beard (who represented Laney-Walker in Dist. 1) to secure Beard's vote for awarding the TEE Center operations contract to Augusta Riverfront LLC, which is headed by Paul S. Simon and has connections to Augusta Chronicle publisher William S Morris III. It came about through a $1 per night surcharge on hotel and motel rooms for 50 years with $38 million going towards the Laney-Walker redevelopment and the rest going towards operations expenses for the TEE Center.  This also tied the bond financing together for both projects.

And guess who is the real-estate attorney the city hired to handle the land aquisitions and bond financing for the Laney-Walker redevelopment?...None other than Jim Plunkett, who seems to be the city's go-to attorney to handle these complex public-private partnership deals. As you probably know by now, we recently revealed that Plunkett withheld vital information from commissioners  about liens on the property beneath the new $12 million TEE Center parking deck in addition to the property not being donated as promised. Plunkett's handling of the TEE Center debacle was messy to say the least, with the appearance of deception and incompetence. We can only wonder what surprises might be found in a thorough investigation of the Laney-Walker redevelopment project. What special sweet-heart deals are well-connected LLCs and individuals getting over there? Well you can be assured we are looking into it.

Can We Get an Audit Over Here?
Some commissioners and other investigative reporters have said that there ought to be a forensic audit of the Laney-Walker redevelopment project and Hyde Park. We agree, and we have been saying this for months now. With what we have found out regarding the deceptive behavior involved with the TEE Center deal, it seems to us that any project with connections to it deserves detailed scrutiny as well. And the deceptive way in which the overlay district was attempted to be pushed through behind the scenes with no citizen input (until concerned residents sounded the alarms), certainly leads us to believe that they have been trying to hide something in Laney-Walker as well.

So we say, let's get to the bottom of it all. But we can't help but get the impression that for some people, the call for a forensic audit over the Laney-Walker project is a tad disingenuos and more about playing racial politics than in exposing widespread corruption. Some of the same voices now shouting for a forensic audit of the Hyde Park and Laney-Walker projects were noticeably silent on the TEE Center parking deck debacle, telling us there was nothing there to see or investigate further. Well, there's enough smoke on Reynolds Street and Laney-Walker Blvd to warrant an audit of both projects. And we would also like to remind the same people who vilified Commissioner Bill Lockett as grand standing for asking for a forensic audit over the TEE Center, that he wanted a wide-ranging audit to look into all of these deals, including the Laney-Walker redevelopment.

What we have begun to uncover is a web of corruption and malfeasance. It's not just contained to one area of town, but has begun to spread like a cancer. For the commissioners who continue to oppose audits and investigations into these matters, we have to ask how much more would you like to spend to clean up an even bigger mess? The curtain has been pulled back and what's behind it isn't pretty. And instead of getting to the root of this sickness to find a cure, many commissioners instead would rather opt for a quick fix band aid like they did this past Tuesday when they hastily approved a last minute management agreement for the TEE Center parking deck... one that at least four commissioners had never seen or heard of before that meeting.  That was more about trying to halt any further investigation into the TEE Center debacle than in finding a long lasting solution. We have to wonder why that is, and what are they trying to hide? It seems like the worst contamination in Augusta may not be in Hyde Park. ***
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