HomeNewsConsulting firm eyed to create comprehensive plan for neighborhood revitalization

Consulting firm eyed to create comprehensive plan for neighborhood revitalization

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The city of Augusta recently received a $450,000 federal Choice Neighborhoods grant to devise a comprehensive plan for revitalizing a distressed housing community, but the bulk of the money will likely go to a Pennsylvania consulting firm.

On Tuesday, Feb.8, the city’s Administrative Services Committee will receive and vote on the winning bid submitted by WRT Design and Consulting out of Philadelphia. According to procurement department records, the contract is worth $352,924.

Allen Homes is a public housing neighborhood located off Laney Walker Boulevard and New Savannah Road in downtown Augusta. It was built on the site of a former chemical plant.

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The federal funding is through the Choice Neighborhood Planning Program sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and is a two-year planning grant that aims to support the “development of comprehensive neighborhood revitalization plans,” which focuses on directing resources to address “housing, people, climate and neighborhoods,’’ according to HUD’s website.

At a Dec. 31, 2021 roundtable in Augusta with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, Steven Kendrick, Augusta-Richmond County tax commissioner, touted the grant, which was one of four awarded in 2021. The comprehensive plan devised through it would allow the city to apply for a Choice Neighborhoods Implementation grant of $30 million to $40 million for Allen Homes and the surrounding community.

However, not everyone on the Augusta commission is keen to farm out the planning and design work to a firm that has little to no knowledge of the neighborhood or even Augusta itself.

The decision to use an outside consultant, some commissioners say, basically leapfrogs over Augusta Housing and Development Department Director Hawthorne Welcher, who they say has successfully helmed the city’s redevelopment efforts since 2015.

District 4 Commissioner Alvin Mason says he has never been a fan of using outside consultants when planning experts are available in Augusta.

“I have all the confidence in the world in (Welcher). We are definitely going to have to have some discussion on this,” Mason said.

District 10 Commissioner John Clarke agrees and says that Welcher has done a “fine job” in leading the development process across all of Augusta so far.

“I just don’t understand why we would spend $350,000 for some company from out of state to tell us how to spend the other $100,000,” Clarke said.

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Former Augusta Mayor Bob Young, who also served as Southeast Regional Director of HUD under President George W. Bush’s administration says that perhaps, in this particular instance of using HUD planning money, it could well be in the city’s best interest to not burden the local staff and hire an outside consultant to provide the study.

“HUD does not build houses; they have never designed or built a house. What they do is supply grants for cities to plan and redevelop areas,” Young said, emphasizing that HUD is actually granting the city money expressly to pay for a study, whether it is done in-house or not.

The area has received substantial funding in the past.

In previous years, local politicians have used funding from unlikely sources to pump money into the historically economically depressed area. According to former Commissioner Jerry Brigham, former Mayor Pro Tem Betty Beard in 2009 stalled talks on the proposed Trade and Exhibition Center downtown until commissioners agreed that the $1 per bed hotel/motel fee was to be diverted to use for improvements in the Laney Walker area.

Brigham says the money was originally earmarked for public transportation, and the proceeds could be worth as much as $50 million over time as the bonds for the TEE Center are paid down.

A drive through the area shows that the streets are well-maintained, and the area is filled with ornate streetlights. However, much of the area still has nearly brand new homes situated next to uninhabitable structures.

A new home constructed by ANIC next to an uninhabitable structure. Photo by Scott Hudson

Despite two decades of attention, the roughly five-square mile section of the city still sits under the shadows of abandoned factories, derelict churches, empty storefronts and houses occupied only by the homeless.

The city has found itself stymied with code non-compliance from absentee landlords operating out of state as well as local landowners, such as retired Superior Court Judge Carl Brown who has long refused to rehabilitate or sell large areas of land that he and his family own in the area.

The Denning House is located on Seventh Street.

The Brown family still owns the historic Denning House, located at 905 Seventh St., which is now an irretrievable relic. The buildings adjacent are in the same derelict condition, according to Augusta code enforcement.

In 1999, former Augusta Mayor Bob Young along with former Mayor Charles DeVaney and former Sen. Charles Walker helped form the board of the Augusta Neighborhood Improvement Corporation, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to revitalization in Laney Walker.

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Former Gov. Roy Barnes earmarked $20 million over 20 years out of the state budget to be sent directly to ANIC, according to Young.

In 2008, ANIC attempted to build a gated community which culminated in only four units on one block at the corner of James Brown Boulevard and D’Antignac Street. Parts of the brick and steel gate around the structure have fallen several times due to ground water erosion in the area. 

An attempt to build a “gated community” only yielded four townhome units before funding dried up. Photo by Scott Hudson

Now that the state funding has dried up, it appears that ANIC has ceased to exist. The website for the non-profit has not been updated since 2017.

Young, who only participated in helping choose the board for ANIC and had no further involvement in the non-profit, says he believes that the best way to judge the effectiveness of ANIC as well as the other streams of government funds spent in the area is to look at the census data.

“You have to look at all the data. Are more people moving in and staying? Has the tax digest grown? Has crime gone down?  If that is the case, then it is a success so far, and that is all you can do. You plan, and then you hope your plans and ideas turn out right,” Young said.

Scott Hudson is the senior reporter for The Augusta Press. Reach him at [email protected] 

5 COMMENTS

  1. One more “beyond stupid” idea to pay a consultant to provide a plan that the city has no money to implement. I still can’t get over Sen Chas Walker telling that …now all that new tax base monies is being used to try to shore up the blighted inner city.

  2. I used to deliver in government run housing in Aiken and Augusta. The cities would round up tax payers money and revitalize them. Construction would start on one complex at the time. It would take months to finish each building, and the tenants would move back in and construction would start on another building. Before that building was complete, the first one already started being trashed. Most of these people don’t take care of anything, especially when it’s not theirs.

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