Augusta - a 2012 County of Excellence
Ed Lightsey & Ben Young
Georgia Trend Magazine
When Ross King, executive director of the Association County Com-missioners of Georgia (ACCG), began perusing submissions from across the state for the 2012 Georgia Counties of Excellence Awards, he found county officials were most interested in saving taxpayers money, which they have been doing on purpose and sometimes even accidentally. The awards program, in its seventh year, is carried out in partnership with Georgia Trend.
We had more entries in the technology category than at any time in the programs history, King says.
In Clayton County, online fire department training programs not only cut man-hours for trainers, but also reduced fuel consumption by 60 percent, King says. A public safety award went to Camden County for a program that makes defibrillators available for public use.
All of the programs recognized by the ACCG panel of judges this year had a common denominator: They can be easily duplicated in other counties. One of the things we focused on with the establishment of the program seven years ago was transferability, the capacity to be replicated across the state, King says.
Another was a simple application process, making sure it wasnt so onerous as to force counties to seek outside assistance.
The applications were evaluated by a panel of outside experts. Here are the winners stories.
A once proud and prosperous African-American neighborhood in decline, characterized by weed-filled lots, empty buildings and population loss followed by a gentrification process in which the longtime residents were displaced by redevelopment. That could have been the story of Augustas Laney Walker/Bethlehem neighborhoods, except no one has been displaced and the rebirth of the historic community is being financed in a novel way.
We did fund the project in an innovative way, says Deke Copenhaver, mayor of Augusta-Richmond Countys consolidated government. We increased our hotel/motel room fees by one dollar a night and used those monies to invest in the neighborhood, which will be $37.5 million over a 50-year time frame. Planning on the project began in 2008. Restored houses are now being sold and rental properties leased, but no one is saying the final product will be in place quickly.
The majority of the people who have bought here have some ties to the neighborhood and were thrilled to see what was going on and have moved back, says Chester Wheeler, director of the Augusta Housing and Community Development Department, the managing agency of the Laney Walker/Bethlehem redevelopment project.
The project is filled with historic homes spanning a period from the mid-1800s to the 1930s, and the neighborhoods location is a strong selling point, says Wheeler. We are in close proximity to Georgia Health Sciences University, what used to be known as Georgia Medical College, and youve got seven different medical institutions around [the neighborhood]. Thats 14,000 people that work in that medical environment very close to Laney Walker/Bethlehem, he says.
Copenhaver and Wheeler both believe that residential growth will be followed by commercial and retail development. The master plan for Laney Walker/Bethlehem and the early restoration work have been hailed by urban planners, historic preservationists and academics.
The project won the  Georgia Planning Associations Outstanding Plan Implementation Award and has been recognized by Harvard Universitys student magazine as a potential game-changer nationally in community redevelopment, Copenhaver says. Wheeler estimates about $1 million worth of houses have been sold as interest in the project continues to rise. We sold all of the first set of houses we built, he says. We believe we can create a live/work environment, and we are doing that close by. One gentleman bought a house there and now lives four to five blocks from where he works.
The final product includes plans to make the neighborhood a mixed-income community. We wanted to make sure houses were selling in the neighborhood, but we also have done some rental units and duplexes because we felt like it was important to make sure that people who wanted to stay in the neighborhood are able to do so, Copenhaver says. To the best of my knowledge we have not displaced anybody. Home ownership in the neighborhood will produce more taxes for Augusta-Richmond County, says the mayor.
And I believe you will see commercial activity start to come in and crime to dissipate, he says. Making that community healthier makes our whole community healthier.
For its plans to rehabilitate a once-vibrant historic neighborhood, Augusta-Richmond County was recognized by the ACCG judging panel as the recipient of the 2012 County of Excellence Award in the category of Community Planning/Visioning. EL